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Gab r i el 

Garcfa Marquez 



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LOVE I N THE 
Tl ME OF 
CHOLERA 

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 



for more e-books, visit www.intexblogger.com 



other books in english translation by gabri el garcia 
mArquez 

No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories 

(1968) 

One Hundred Years of Solitude 

(1970) 

The Autumn of the Patriarch 

(1976) 

Innocent Erendira and Other Stories 

(1978) In Evil Hour 

(1979) LeafStorm and Other Stories 
(1979) 

Chronicle of a Death Foretold 

(1982) 

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor 

(1986) 

Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures ofMiguel Littin 

(1987) 



Love in the Time of Cholera 
Grabriel Garcfa Marquez 



LOVE in the 

Tl ME of 

CHOLERA 

TRANSLATED FROM THE SPANISH BY EDITH GROSSMAN 

Alfred A. Knopf New York 1988 

THI S I S A BORZOI BOOK PUBLI SHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, I NC. 

Copyright © 1988 by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright 

Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 

New York, 

and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, 

Toronto. 

Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in 

Colombia as El amor en los tiempos del colera 

by Editorial Oveja Negra Ltda., Bogota. Copyright © 1985 by Gabriel 

Garcia Marquez. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Garcia Marquez, 

Gabriel, [date] 

Love in the time of cholera. Translation of: El amor en los tiempos del 

colera. 

I. Title. PQ8180.17.A73A813 1988 863 87-40484 

ISBN 0-394-56161-9 ISBN 0-394-57108-8 (lim. ed.) 

Manufactured in the United States of America 

BOMC offers recordings and compact discs, cassettes and records. For 

information and catalog write to BOMR, Camp Hill, PA 17012. 



For Mercedes, of course 

The words I am about to express: 

They now have their own crowned goddess. 

LEANDRO DIAZ 



Love in the Time of Cholera 

CHAPTER ONE 

IT WAS INEVITABLE: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him 
of the fate of unrequited love. Dr. J uvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as 
he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent 
call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years 
before. The Antillean refugee J eremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war 
veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent 
in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic 
fumes of gold cyanide. 

He found the corpse covered with a blanket on the campaign cot where 
he had always slept, and beside it was a stool with the developing tray 
he had used to vaporize the poison. On the floor, tied to a leg of the 
cot, lay the body of a black Great Dane with a snow-white chest, and 
next to him were the crutches. At one window the splendor of dawn 
was just beginning to illuminate the stifling, crowded room that served 
as both bedroom and laboratory, but there was enough light for him to 
recognize at once the authority of death. The other windows, as well as 
every other chink in the room, were muffled with rags or sealed with 
black cardboard, which increased the oppressive heaviness. A counter 
was crammed with jars and bottles without labels and two crumbling 
pewter trays under an ordinary light bulb covered with red paper. The 
third tray, the one for the fixative solution, was next to the body. 
There were old magazines and newspapers everywhere, piles of 
negatives on glass plates, broken furniture, but everything was kept 
free of dust by a diligent hand. Although the air coming through the 



window had purified the atmosphere, there still remained for the one 
who could identify it the dying embers of hapless love in the bitter 
almonds. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had often thought, with no premonitory 
intention, that this would not be a propitious place for dying in a state 
of grace. But in time he came to suppose that perhaps its disorder 
obeyed an obscure determination of Divine Providence. 
A police inspector had come forward with a very young medical 
student who was completing his forensic training at the municipal 
dispensary, and it was they who had ventilated the room and covered 
the body while waiting for Dr. Urbino to arrive. They greeted him with 
a solemnity that on this occasion had more of condolence than 
veneration, for no one was unaware of the degree of his friendship 
with Jeremiah de Saint-Amour. The eminent teacher shook hands with 
each of them, as he always did with every one of his pupils before 
beginning the daily class in general clinical medicine, and then, as if it 
were a flower, he grasped the hem of the blanket with the tips of his 
index finger and his thumb, and slowly uncovered the body with 
sacramental circumspection. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was completely 
naked, stiff and twisted, eyes open, body blue, looking fifty years 
older than he had the night before. He had luminous pupils, yellowish 
beard and hair, and an old scar sewn with baling knots across his 
stomach. The use of crutches had made his torso and arms as broad as 
a galley slave's, but his defenseless legs looked like an orphan's. Dr. 
Juvenal Urbino studied him for a moment, his heart aching as it rarely 
had in the long years of his futile struggle against death. 
"Damn fool," he said. "The worst was over." 
He covered him again with the blanket and regained his academic 
dignity. His eightieth birthday had been celebrated the year before 



with an official three-day jubilee, and in histhank-you speech he had 
once again resisted the temptation to retire. He had said: "I'll have 
plenty of time to rest when I die, but this eventuality is not yet part of 
my plans." Although he heard less and less with his right ear, and 
leaned on a silver-handled cane to conceal his faltering steps, he 
continued to wear a linen suit, with a gold watch chain across his vest, 
as smartly as he had in his younger years. His Pasteur beard, the color 
of mother-of-pearl, and his hair, the same color, carefully combed 
back and with a neat part in the middle, were faithful expressions of 
his character. He compensated as much as he could for an increasingly 
disturbing erosion of memory by scribbling hurried notes on scraps of 
paper that ended in confusion in each of his pockets, as did the 
instruments, the bottles of medicine, and all the other things jumbled 
together in his crowded medical bag. He was not only the city's oldest 
and most illustrious physician, he was also its most fastidious man. 
Still, his too obvious display of learning and the disingenuous manner 
in which he used the power of his name had won him less affection 
than he deserved. 

His instructions to the inspector and the intern were precise and rapid. 
There was no need for an autopsy; the odor in the house was sufficient 
proof that the cause of death had been the cyanide vapors activated in 
the tray by some photographic acid, and J eremiah de Saint-Amour 
knew too much about those matters for it to have been an accident. 
When the inspector showed some hesitation, he cut him off with the 
kind of remark that was typical of his manner: "Don't forget that I am 
the one who signs the death certificate." The young doctor was 
disappointed: he had never had the opportunity to study the effects of 
gold cyanide on a cadaver. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been surprised that 



he had not seen him at the Medical School, but he understood in an 
instant from the young man's easy blush and Andean accent that he 
was probably a recent arrival to the city. He said: "There is bound to 
be someone driven mad by love who will give you the chance one of 
these days." And only after he said it did he realize that among the 
countless suicides he could remember, this was the first with cyanide 
that had not been caused by the sufferings of love. Then something 
changed in the tone of his voice. 

"And when you do find one, observe with care," he said to the intern: 
"they almost always have crystals in their heart." 
Then he spoke to the inspector as he would have to a subordinate. He 
ordered him to circumvent all the legal procedures so that the burial 
could take place that same afternoon and with the greatest discretion. 
He said: "I will speak to the Mayor later." He knew that Jeremiah de 
Saint-Amour lived in primitive austerity and that he earned much more 
with his art than he needed, so that in one of the drawers in the house 
there was bound to be more than enough money for the funeral 
expenses. 

"But if you do not find it, it does not matter," he said. "I will take care 
of everything." He ordered him to tell the press that the photographer 
had died of natural causes, although he thought the news would in no 
way interest them. He said: "If it is necessary, I will speak to the 
Governor." The inspector, a serious and humble civil servant, knew 
that the Doctor's sense of civic duty exasperated even his closest 
friends, and he was surprised at the ease with which he skipped over 
legal formalities in order to expedite the burial. The only thing he was 
not willing to do was speak to the Archbishop so that Jeremiah de 
Saint-Amour could be buried in holy ground. The inspector, astonished 



at his own impertinence, attempted to make excuses for him. 
"I understood this man was a saint," he said. 

"Something even rarer," said Dr. Urbino. "An atheistic saint. But those 
are matters for God to decide." 

I n the distance, on the other side of the colonial city, the bells of the 
Cathedral were ringing for High Mass. Dr. Urbino put on his half-moon 
glasses with the gold rims and consulted the watch on its chain, slim, 
elegant, with the cover that opened at a touch: he was about to miss 
Pentecost Mass. 

In the parlor was a huge camera on wheels like the ones used in public 
parks, and the backdrop of a marine twilight, painted with homemade 
paints, and the walls papered with pictures of children at memorable 
moments: the first Communion, the bunny costume, the happy 
birthday. Year after year, during contemplative pauses on afternoons 
of chess, Dr. Urbino had seen the gradual covering over of the walls, 
and he had often thought with a shudder of sorrow that in the gallery 
of casual portraits lay the germ of the future city, governed and 
corrupted by those unknown children, where not even the ashes of his 
glory would remain. 

On the desk, next to a jar that held several old sea dog's pipes, was 
the chessboard with an unfinished game. Despite his haste and his 
somber mood, Dr. Urbino could not resist the temptation to study it. 
He knew it was the previous night's game, for Jeremiah de 
Saint-Amour played at dusk every day of the week with at least three 
different opponents, but he always finished every game and then 
placed the board and chessmen in their box and stored the box in a 
desk drawer. The Doctor knew he played with the white pieces and 
that this time it was evident he was going to be defeated without 



mercy in four moves. "If there had been a crime, this would be a good 
clue," Urbino said to himself. "I know only one man capable of 
devising this masterful trap." If his life depended on it, he had to find 
out later why that indomitable soldier, accustomed to fighting to the 
last drop of blood, had left the final battle of his life unfinished. 
At six that morning, as he was making his last rounds, the night 
watchman had seen the note nailed to the street door: Come in without 
knocking and inform the police. A short while later the inspector 
arrived with the intern, and the two of them had searched the house 
for some evidence that might contradict the unmistakable breath of 
bitter almonds. But in the brief minutes the Doctor needed to study the 
unfinished game, the inspector discovered an envelope among the 
papers on the desk, addressed to Dr. Juvenal Urbino and sealed with 
so much sealing wax that it had to be ripped to pieces to get the letter 
out. The Doctor opened the black curtain over the window to have 
more light, gave a quick glance at the eleven sheets covered on both 
sides by a diligent handwriting, and when he had read the first 
paragraph he knew that he would miss Pentecost Communion. He read 
with agitated breath, turning back on several pages to find the thread 
he had lost, and when he finished he seemed to return from very far 
away and very long ago. His despondency was obvious despite his 
effort to control it: his lips were as blue as the corpse and he could not 
stop the trembling of his fingers as he refolded the letter and placed it 
in his vest pocket. Then he remembered the inspector and the young 
doctor, and he smiled at them through the mists of grief. 
"Nothing in particular," he said. "His final instructions." 
It was a half-truth, but they thought it complete because he ordered 
them to lift a loose tile from the floor, where they found a worn 



account book that contained the combination to the strongbox. There 
was not as much money as they expected, but it was more than 
enough for the funeral expenses and to meet other minor obligations. 
Then Dr. Urbino realized that he could not get to the Cathedral before 
the Gospel reading. 

"It's the third time I've missed Sunday Mass since I've had the use of 
my reason," he said. "But God understands." 

So he chose to spend a few minutes more and attend to all the details, 
although he could hardly bear his intense longing to share the secrets 
of the letter with his wife. He promised to notify the numerous 
Caribbean refugees who lived in the city in case they wanted to pay 
their last respects to the man who had conducted himself as if he were 
the most respectable of them all, the most active and the most radical, 
even after it had become all too clear that he had been overwhelmed 
by the burden of disillusion. He would also inform his chess partners, 
who ranged from distinguished professional men to nameless laborers, 
as well as other, less intimate acquaintances who might perhaps wish 
to attend the funeral. Before he read the posthumous letter he had 
resolved to be first among them, but afterward he was not certain of 
anything. In any case, he was going to send a wreath of gardenias in 
the event that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour had repented at the last 
moment. The burial would be at five, which was the most suitable hour 
during the hottest months. If they needed him, from noon on he would 
be at the country house of Dr. Lacides Olivella, his beloved disciple, 
who was celebrating his silver anniversary in the profession with a 
formal luncheon that day. 

Once the stormy years of his early struggles were over, Dr. J uvenal 
Urbino had followed a set routine and achieved a respectability and 



prestige that had no equal in the province. He arose at the crack of 
dawn, when he began to take his secret medicines: potassium bromide 
to raise his spirits, salicylates for the ache in his bones when it rained, 
ergosterol drops for vertigo, belladonna for sound sleep. He took 
something every hour, always in secret, because in his long life as a 
doctor and teacher he had always opposed prescribing palliatives for 
old age: it was easier for him to bear other people's pains than his 
own. I n his pocket he always carried a little pad of camphor that he 
inhaled deeply when no one was watching to calm his fear of so many 
medicines mixed together. 

He would spend an hour in his study preparing for the class in general 
clinical medicine that he taught at the Medical School every morning, 
Monday through Saturday, at eight o'clock, until the day before his 
death. He was also an avid reader of the latest books that his 
bookseller in Paris mailed to him, or the ones from Barcelona that his 
local bookseller ordered for him, although he did not follow Spanish 
literature as closely as French. In any case, he never read them in the 
morning, but only for an hour after his siesta and at night before he 
went to sleep. When he was finished in the study he did fifteen 
minutes of respiratory exercises in front of the open window in the 
bathroom, always breathing toward the side where the roosters were 
crowing, which was where the air was new. Then he bathed, arranged 
his beard and waxed his mustache in an atmosphere saturated with 
genuine cologne from Farina Gegenuber, and dressed in white linen, 
with a vest and a soft hat and cordovan boots. At eighty-one years of 
age he preserved the same easygoing manner and festive spirit that 
he had on his return from Paris soon after the great cholera epidemic, 
and except for the metallic color, his carefully combed hair with the 



center part was the same as it had been in his youth. He breakfasted 
en famille but followed his own personal regimen of an infusion of 
wormwood blossoms for his stomach and a head of garlic that he 
peeled and ate a clove at a time, chewing each one carefully with 
bread, to prevent heart failure. After class it was rare for him not to 
have an appointment related to his civic initiatives, or his Catholic 
service, or his artistic and social innovations. 

He almost always ate lunch at home and had a ten-minute siesta on 
the terrace in the patio, hearing in his sleep the songs of the servant 
girls under the leaves of the mango trees, the cries of vendors on the 
street, the uproar of oil and motors from the bay whose exhaust fumes 
fluttered through the house on hot afternoons like an angel condemned 
to putrefaction. Then he read his new books for an hour, above all 
novels and works of history, and gave lessons in French and singing to 
the tame parrot who had been a local attraction for years. At four 
o'clock, after drinking a large glass of lemonade with ice, he left to call 
on his patients. In spite of his age he would not see patients in his 
office and continued to care for them in their homes as he always had, 
since the city was so domesticated that one could go anywhere in 
safety. 

After he returned from Europe the first time, he used the family 
landau, drawn by two golden chestnuts, but when this was no longer 
practical he changed it for a Victoria and a single horse, and he 
continued to use it, with a certain disdain for fashion, when carriages 
had already begun to disappear from the world and the only ones left 
in the city were for giving rides to tourists and carrying wreaths at 
funerals. Although he refused to retire, he was aware that he was 
called in only for hopeless cases, but he considered this a form of 



specialization too. He could tell what was wrong with a patient just by 
looking at him, he grew more and more distrustful of patent 
medicines, and he viewed with alarm the vulgarization of surgery. He 
would say: "The scalpel is the greatest proof of the failure of 
medicine." He thought that, in a strict sense, all medication was poison 
and that seventy percent of common foods hastened death. "In any 
case," he would say in class, "the little medicine we know is known 
only by a few doctors." From youthful enthusiasm he had moved to a 
position that he himself defined as fatalistic humanism: "Each man is 
master of his own death, and all that we can do when the time comes 
is to help him die without fear of pain." But despite these extreme 
ideas, which were already part of local medical folklore, his former 
pupils continued to consult him even after they were established in the 
profession, for they recognized in him what was called in those days a 
clinical eye. In any event, he was always an expensive and exclusive 
doctor, and his patients were concentrated in the ancestral homes in 
the District of the Viceroys. 

His daily schedule was so methodical that his wife knew where to send 
him a message if an emergency arose in the course of the afternoon. 
When he was a young man he would stop in the Parish Cafe before 
coming home, and this was where he perfected his chess game with his 
father-in-law's cronies and some Caribbean refugees. But he had not 
returned to the Parish Cafe since the dawn of the new century, and he 
had attempted to organize national tournaments under the sponsorship 
of the Social Club. It was at this time that J eremiah de Saint- Amour 
arrived, his knees already dead, not yet a photographer of children, 
yet in less than three months everyone who knew how to move a 
bishop across a chessboard knew who he was, because no one had 



been able to defeat him in a game. For Dr. Juvenal Urbino it was a 
miraculous meeting, at the very moment when chess had become an 
unconquerable passion for him and he no longer had many opponents 
who could satisfy it. 

Thanks to him, J eremiah de Saint-Amour could become what he was 
among us. Dr. Urbino made himself his unconditional protector, his 
guarantor in everything, without even taking the trouble to learn who 
he was or what he did or what inglorious Avars he 
had come from in his crippled, broken state. He eventually lent him 
the money to set up his photography studio, and from the time he took 
his first picture of a child startled by the magnesium flash, J eremiah de 
Saint-Amour paid back every last penny with religious regularity. 
It was all for chess. At first they played after supper at seven o'clock, 
with a reasonable handicap for Jeremiah de Saint-Amour because of 
his notable superiority, but the handicap was reduced until at last they 
played as equals. Later, when Don Galileo Daconte opened the first 
outdoor cinema, J eremiah de Saint-Amour was one of his most 
dependable customers, and the games of chess were limited to the 
nights when a new film was not being shown. By then he and the 
Doctor had become such good friends that they would go to see the 
films together, but never with the Doctor's wife, in part because she 
did not have the patience to follow the complicated plot lines, and in 
part because it always seemed to her, through sheer intuition, that 
Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was not a good companion for anyone. 
His Sundays were different. He would attend High Mass at the 
Cathedral and then return home to rest and read on the terrace in the 
patio. He seldom visited a patient on a holy day of obligation unless it 
was of extreme urgency, and for many years he had not accepted a 



social engagement that was not obligatory. On this Pentecost, in a rare 

coincidence, two extraordinary events had occurred: the death of a 

friend and the silver anniversary of an eminent pupil. Yet instead of 

going straight home as he had intended after certifying the death of 

Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, he allowed himself to be carried along by 

curiosity. 

As soon as he was in his carriage, he again consulted the posthumous 
letter and told the coachman to take him to an obscure location in the 
old slave quarter. That decision was so foreign to his usual habits that 
the coachman wanted to make certain there was no mistake. No, no 
mistake: the address was clear and the man who had written it had 
more than enough reason to know it very well. Then Dr. Urbino 
returned to the first page of the letter and plunged once again into the 
flood of unsavory revelations that might have changed his life, even at 
his age, if he could have convinced himself that they were not the 
ravings of a dying man. 
The sky had begun to threaten very early in the day and the weather 

was cloudy and cool, but there was no chance of rain before noon. I n 

his effort to find a shorter route, the coachman braved the rough 

cobblestones of the colonial city and had to stop often to keep the 

horse from being frightened by the rowdiness of the religious societies 

and fraternities coming back from the Pentecost liturgy. The streets 

were full of paper garlands, music, flowers, and girls with colored 

parasols and muslin ruffles who watched the celebration from their 

balconies. I n the Plaza of the Cathedral, where the statue of The 

Liberator was almost hidden among the African palm trees and the 

globes of the new streetlights, traffic was congested because Mass had 

ended, and not a seat was empty in the venerable and noisy Parish 

Cafe. Dr. Urbino's was the only horse-drawn carriage; it was 



distinguishable from the handful left in the city because the 
patent-leather roof was always kept polished, and it had fittings of 
bronze that would not be corroded by salt, and wheels and poles 
painted red with gilt trimming like gala nights at the Vienna Opera. 
Furthermore, while the most demanding families were satisfied if their 
drivers had a clean shirt, he still required his coachman to wear livery 
of faded velvet and a top hat like a circus ringmaster's, which, more 
than an anachronism, was thought to show a lack of 
compassion in the dog days of the Caribbean summer. 
Despite his almost maniacal love for the city and a knowledge of it 
superior to anyone's, Dr. J uvenal Urbino had not often had reason as 
he did that Sunday to venture boldly into the tumult of the old slave 
quarter. The coachman had to make many turns and stop to ask 
directions several times in order to find the house. As they passed by 
the marshes, Dr. Urbino recognized their oppressive weight, their 
ominous silence, their suffocating gases, which on so many insomniac 
dawns had risen to his bedroom, blending with the fragrance of 
jasmine from the patio, and which he felt pass by him like a wind out 
of yesterday that had nothing to do with his life. But that pestilence so 
frequently idealized by nostalgia became an unbearable reality when 
the carriage began to lurch through the quagmire of the streets where 
buzzards fought over the slaughterhouse offal as it was swept along by 
the receding tide. Unlike the city of the Viceroys where the houses 
were made of masonry, here they were built of weathered boards and 
zinc roofs, and most of them rested on pilings to protect them from the 
flooding of the open sewers that had been inherited from the 
Spaniards. Everything looked wretched and desolate, but out of the 
sordid taverns came the thunder of riotous music, the godless drunken 



celebration of Pentecost by the poor. By the time they found the 
house, gangs of ragged children were chasing the carriage and 
ridiculing the theatrical finery of the coachman, who had to drive them 
away with his whip. Dr. Urbino, prepared for a confidential visit, 
realized too late that there was no innocence more dangerous than the 
innocence of age. 

The exterior of the unnumbered house was in no way distinguishable 
from its less fortunate neighbors, except for the window with lace 
curtains and an imposing front door taken from some old church. The 
coachman pounded the door knocker, and only when he had made 
certain that it was the right house did he help the Doctor out of the 
carriage. The door opened without a sound, and in the shadowy 
interior stood a mature woman dressed in black, with a red rose 
behind her ear. Despite her age, which was no less than forty, she was 
still a haughty mulatta with cruel golden eyes and hair tight to her 
skull like a helmet of steel wool. Dr. Urbino did not recognize her, 
although he had seen her several times in the gloom of the chess 
games in the photographer's studio, and he had once written her a 
prescription for tertian fever. He held out his hand and she took it 
between hers, less in greeting than to help him into the house. The 
parlor had the climate and invisible murmur of a forest glade and was 
crammed with furniture and exquisite objects, each in its natural place. 
Dr. Urbino recalled without bitterness an antiquarian's shop, No. 26 rue 
Montmartre in Paris, on an autumn Monday in the last century. The 
woman sat down across from him and spoke in accented Spanish. 
"This is your house, Doctor," she said. "I did not expect you so soon." 
Dr. Urbino felt betrayed. He stared at her openly, at her intense 
mourning, at the dignity of her grief, and then he understood that this 



was a useless visit because she knew more than he did about 
everything stated and explained in Jeremiah de Saint-Amour's 
posthumous letter. This was true. She had been with him until a very 
few hours before his death, as she had been with him for half his life, 
with a devotion and submissive tenderness that bore too close a 
resemblance to love, and without anyone knowing anything about it in 
this sleepy provincial capital where even state secrets were common 
knowledge. They had met in a convalescent home in Port-au-Prince, 
where she had been born and where he had spent his early years as a 
fugitive, and she had followed him here 

a year later for a brief visit, although both of them knew without 
agreeing to anything that she had come to stay forever. She cleaned 
and straightened the laboratory once a week, but not even the most 
evil-minded neighbors confused appearance with reality because they, 
like everyone else, supposed that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour's disability 
affected more than his capacity to walk. Dr. Urbino himself supposed 
as much for solid medical reasons, and never would have believed his 
friend had a woman if he himself had not revealed it in the letter. In 
any event, it was difficult for him to comprehend that two free adults 
without a past and living on the fringes of a closed society's prejudices 
had chosen the hazards of illicit love. She explained: "It was his wish." 
Moreover, a clandestine life shared with a man who was never 
completely hers, and in which they often knew the sudden explosion of 
happiness, did not seem to her a condition to be despised. On the 
contrary: life had shown her that perhaps it was exemplary. 
On the previous night they had gone to the cinema, each one 
separately, and had sat apart as they had done at least twice a month 
since the Italian immigrant, Don Galileo Daconte, had installed his 



open-air theater in the ruins of a seventeenth-century convent. They 
saw All Quiet on the Western Front, a film based on a book that had 
been popular the year before and that Dr. Urbino had read, his heart 
devastated by the barbarism of war. They met afterward in the 
laboratory, she found him brooding and nostalgic, and thought it was 
because of the brutal scenes of wounded men dying in the mud. I n an 
attempt to distract him, she invited him to play chess and he accepted 
to please her, but he played inattentively, with the white pieces, of 
course, until he discovered before she did that he was going to be 
defeated in four moves and surrendered without honor. Then the 
Doctor realized that she had been his opponent in the final game, and 
not General Jeronimo Argote, as he had supposed. He murmured in 
astonishment: 
"It was masterful!" 

She insisted that she deserved no praise, but rather that J eremiah de 
Saint-Amour, already lost in the mists of death, had moved his pieces 
without love. When he stopped the game at about a quarter past 
eleven, for the music from the public dances had ended, he asked her 
to leave him. He wanted to write a letter to Dr. Juvenal Urbino, whom 
he considered the most honorable man he had ever known, and his 
soul's friend, as he liked to say, despite the fact that the only affinity 
between the two was their addiction to chess understood as a dialogue 
of reason and not as a science. And then she knew that Jeremiah de 
Saint-Amour had come to the end of his suffering and that he had only 
enough life left to write the letter. The Doctor could not believe it. 
"So then you knew!" he exclaimed. 

She not only knew, she agreed, but she had helped him to endure the 
suffering as lovingly as she had helped him to discover happiness. 



Because that was what his last eleven months had been: cruel 

suffering. 

"Your duty was to report him," said the Doctor. 

"I could not do that," she said, shocked. "I loved him too much." 
Dr. Urbino, who thought he had heard everything, had never heard 

anything like that, and said with such simplicity. He looked straight at 

her and tried with all his senses to fix her in his memory as she was at 

that moment: she seemed like a river idol, undaunted in her black 

dress, with her serpent's eyes and the rose behind her ear. A long time 

ago, on a deserted beach in Haiti where the two of them lay naked 

after love, Jeremiah de SaintAmour had sighed: "I will never be old." 

She interpreted this as a heroic determination to 

struggle without quarter against the ravages of time, but he was more 

specific: he had made the irrevocable decision to take his own life 

when he was seventy years old. 

He had turned seventy, in fact, on the twenty-third of January of that 

year, and then he had set the date as the night before Pentecost, the 

most important holiday in a city consecrated to the cult of the Holy 

Spirit. There was not a single detail of the previous night that she had 

not known about ahead of time, and they spoke of it often, suffering 

together the irreparable rush of days that neither of them could stop 

now. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour loved life with a senseless passion, he 

loved the sea and love, he loved his dog and her, and as the date 

approached he had gradually succumbed to despair as if his death had 

been not his own decision but an inexorable destiny. 

"Last night, when I left him, he was no longer of this world," she said. 

She had wanted to take the dog with her, but he looked at the animal 

dozing beside the crutches and caressed him with the tips of his 



fingers. He said: "I 'm sorry, but Mister Woodrow Wilson is conning with 
me." He asked her to tie him to the leg of the cot while he wrote, and 
she used a false knot so that he could free himself. That had been her 
only act of disloyalty, and it was justified by her desire to remember 
the master in the wintry eyes of his dog. But Dr. Urbino interrupted her 
to say that the dog had not freed himself. She said: "Then it was 
because he did not want to." And she was glad, because she preferred 
to evoke her dead lover as he had asked her to the night before, when 
he stopped writing the letter he had already begun and looked at her 
for the last time. "Remember me with a rose," he said to her. 
She had returned home a little after midnight. She lay down fully 
dressed on her bed, to smoke one cigarette after another and give him 
time to finish what she knew was a long and difficult letter, and a little 
before three o'clock, when the dogs began to howl, she put the water 
for coffee on the stove, dressed in full mourning, and cut the first rose 
of dawn in the patio. Dr. Urbino already realized how completely he 
would repudiate the memory of that irredeemable woman, and he 
thought he knew why: only a person without principles could be so 
complaisant toward grief. 

And for the remainder of the visit she gave him even more 
justification. She would not go to the funeral, for that is what she had 
promised her lover, although Dr. Urbino thought he had read just the 
opposite in one of the paragraphs of the letter. She would not shed a 
tear, she would not waste the rest of her years simmering in the 
maggot broth of memory, she would not bury herself alive inside these 
four walls to sew her shroud, as native widows were expected to do. 
She intended to sell J eremiah de Saint-Amour's house and all its 
contents, which, according to the letter, now belonged to her, and she 



would go on living as she always had, without complaining, in this 
death trap of the poor where she had been happy. 
The words pursued Dr. Juvenal Urbino on the drive home: "this death 
trap of the poor." It was not a gratuitous description. For the city, his 
city, stood unchanging on the edge of time: the same burning dry city 
of his nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty, where 
flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four 
centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying 
swamps. In winter sudden devastating downpours flooded the latrines 
and turned the streets into sickening bogs. In summer an invisible dust 
as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the bestprotected 
corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the 
houses and carried away children through the air. On Saturdays the 
poor mulattoes, along with all their domestic animals and kitchen 
utensils, tumultuously abandoned their hovels of cardboard and tin on 
the edges of the swamps and in jubilant assault took over the rocky 
beaches of the colonial district. Until a few years ago, some of the 
older ones still bore the royal slave brand that had been burned onto 
their chests with flaming irons. During the weekend they danced 
without mercy, drank themselves blind on home-brewed alcohol, made 
wild love among the icaco plants, and on Sunday at midnight they 
broke up their own party with bloody free-for-alls. During the rest of 
the week the same impetuous mob swarmed into the plazas and alleys 
of the old neighborhoods with their stores of everything that could be 
bought and sold, and they infused the dead city with the frenzy of a 
human fair reeking of fried fish: a new life. 

I ndependence from Spain and then the abolition of slavery precipitated 
the conditions of honorable decadence in which Dr. Juvenal Urbino had 



been born and raised. The great old families sank into their ruined 
palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so 
well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the 
balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the 
best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o'clock in the 
afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of 
siesta. Indoors, in the cool bedrooms saturated with incense, women 
protected themselves from the sun as if it were a shameful infection, 
and even at early Mass they hid their faces in their mantillas. Their 
love affairs were slow and difficult and were often disturbed by sinister 
omens, and life seemed interminable. At nightfall, at the oppressive 
moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of 
the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred 
the certainty of death in the depths of one's soul. 
And so the very life of the colonial city, which the young J uvenal 
Urbino tended to idealize in his Parisian melancholy, was an illusion of 
memory. I n the eighteenth century, the commerce of the city had been 
the most prosperous in the Caribbean, owing in the main to the 
thankless privilege of its being the largest African slave market in the 
Americas. It was also the permanent residence of the Viceroys of the 
New Kingdom of Granada, who preferred to govern here on the shores 
of the world's ocean rather than in the distant freezing capital under a 
centuries-old drizzle that disturbed their sense of reality. Several times 
a year, fleets of galleons carrying the treasures of Potosi, Quito, and 
Veracruz gathered in the bay, and the city lived its years of glory. On 
Friday, June 8, 1708, at four o'clock in the afternoon, the galleon San 
Jose set sail for Cadiz with a cargo of precious stones and metals 
valued at five hundred billion pesos in the currency of the day; it was 



sunk by an English squadron at the entrance to the port, and two long 
centuries later it had not yet been salvaged. That treasure lying in its 
bed of coral, and the corpse of the commander floating sideways on 
the bridge, were evoked by historians as an emblem of the city 
drowned in memories. 

Across the bay, in the residential district of La Manga, Dr. J uvenal 
Urbino's house stood in another time. One-story, spacious and cool, it 
had a portico with Doric columns on the outside terrace, which 
commanded a view of the still, miasmic water and the debris from 
sunken ships in the bay. From the entrance door to the kitchen, the 
floor was covered with black and white checkerboard tiles, a fact often 
attributed to Dr. Urbino's ruling passion without taking into account 
that this was a weakness common to the Catalonian craftsmen who 
built this district for the nouveaux riches at the beginning of the 
century. The large drawing room had the very high ceilings found 
throughout the rest of the house, and six full-length windows facing the 
street, and it was separated from the dining room by an enormous, 
elaborate glass door covered with branching vines and bunches of 
grapes and maidens seduced by the pipes of fauns in a bronze grove. 
The furnishings in the reception rooms, including the pendulum clock 
that stood like a living sentinel in the drawing room, were all original 
English pieces from the late nineteenth century, and the lamps that 
hung from the walls were all teardrop crystal, and there were Sevres 
vases and bowls everywhere and little alabaster statues of pagan 
idylls. But that European coherence vanished in the rest of the house, 
where wicker armchairs were jumbled together with Viennese rockers 
and leather footstools made by local craftsmen. Splendid hammocks 
from San J acinto, with multicolored fringe along the sides and the 



owner's name embroidered in Gothic letters with silk thread, hung in 
the bedrooms along with the beds. Next to the dining room, the space 
that had originally been designed for gala suppers was used as a small 
music room for intimate concerts when famous performers came to the 
city. I n order to enhance the silence, the tiles had been covered with 
the Turkish rugs purchased at the World's Fair in Paris; a recent model 
of a victrola stood next to a stand that held records arranged with 
care, and in a corner, draped with a Manila shawl, was the piano that 
Dr. Urbino had not played for many years. Throughout the house one 
could detect the good sense and care of a woman whose feet were 
planted firmly on the ground. 

But no other room displayed the meticulous solemnity of the library, 
the sanctuary of Dr. Urbino until old age carried him off. There, all 
around his father's walnut desk and the tufted leather easy chairs, he 
had lined the walls and even the windows with shelves behind glass 
doors, and had arranged in an almost demented order the three 
thousand volumes bound in identical calfskin with his initials in gold on 
the spines. Unlike the other rooms, which were at the mercy of noise 
and foul winds from the port, the library always enjoyed the 
tranquillity and fragrance of an abbey. Born and raised in the 
Caribbean superstition that one opened doors and windows to summon 
a coolness that in fact did not exist, Dr. Urbino and his wife at first felt 
their hearts oppressed by enclosure. But in the end they were 
convinced of the merits of the Roman strategy against heat, which 
consists of closing houses during the lethargy of August in order to 
keep out the burning air from the street, and then opening them up 
completely to the night breezes. And from that time on theirs was the 
coolest house under the furious La Manga sun, and it was a delight to 



take a siesta in the darkened bedrooms and to sit on the portico in the 
afternoon to watch the heavy, ash-gray freighters from New Orleans 
pass by, and at dusk to see the wooden paddles of the riverboats with 
their shining lights, purifying the stagnant garbage heap of the bay 
with the wake of their music. It was also the best protected from 
December through March, when the northern winds tore away roofs 
and spent the night circling like hungry wolves looking for a crack 
where they could slip in. No one ever thought that a marriage rooted 
in such foundations could have any reason not to be happy. 
In any case, Dr. Urbino was not when he returned home that morning 
before ten o'clock, shaken by the two visits that not only had obliged 
him to miss Pentecost Mass but also threatened to change him at an 
age when everything had seemed complete. He wanted a short siesta 
until it was time for Dr. Lacides Olivella's gala luncheon, but he found 
the servants in an uproar as they attempted to catch the parrot, who 
had flown to the highest branches of the mango tree when they took 
him from his cage to clip his wings. He was a deplumed, maniacal 
parrot who did not speak when asked to but only when it was least 
expected, but then he did so with a clarity and rationality that were 
uncommon among human beings. He had been tutored by Dr. Urbino 
himself, which afforded him privileges that no one else in the family 
ever had, not even the children when they were young. 
He had lived in the house for over twenty years, and no one knew how 
many years he had been alive before then. Every afternoon after his 
siesta, Dr. Urbino sat with him on the terrace in the patio, the coolest 
spot in the house, and he had summoned the most diligent reserves of 
his passion for pedagogy until the parrot learned to speak French like 
an academician. Then, just for love of the labor, he taught him the 



Latin accompaniment to the Mass and selected passages from the 
Gospel according to St. Matthew, and he tried without success to 
inculcate in him a working notion of the four arithmetic functions. On 
one of his last trips to Europe he brought back the first phonograph 
with a trumpet speaker, along with many of the latest popular records 
as well as those by his favorite classical composers. Day after day, 
over and over again for several months, he played the songs of Yvette 
Guilbert and Aristide Bruant, who had charmed France during the last 
century, until the parrot learned them by heart. He sang them in a 
woman's voice if they were hers, in a tenor's voice if they were his, 
and ended with impudent laughter that was a masterful imitation of 
the servant girls when they heard him singing in French. The fame of 
his accomplishments was so widespread that on occasion distinguished 
visitors who had traveled from the interior on the riverboats would ask 
permission to see him, and once some of the many English tourists, 
who in those days sailed the banana boats from New Orleans, would 
have bought him at any price. But the day of his greatest glory was 
when the President of the Republic, Don Marco Fidel Suarez, with his 
entourage of cabinet ministers, visited the house in order to confirm 
the truth of his reputation. They arrived at about three o'clock in the 
afternoon, suffocating in the top hats and frock coats they had worn 
during three days of official visits under the burning August sky, and 
they had to leave as curious as when they arrived, because for two 
desperate hours the parrot refused to say a single syllable, ignoring 
the pleas and threats and public humiliation of Dr. Urbino, who had 
insisted on that foolhardy invitation despite the sage warnings of his 
wife. 
The fact that the parrot could maintain his privileges after that historic 



act of defiance was the ultimate proof of his sacred rights. No other 
animal was permitted in the house, with the exception of the land 
turtle who had reappeared in the kitchen after three or four years, 
when everyone thought he was lost forever. He, however, was not 
considered a living being but rather a mineral good luck charm whose 
location one could never be certain of. Dr. Urbino was reluctant to 
confess his hatred of animals, which he disguised with all kinds of 
scientific inventions and philosophical pretexts that convinced many, 
but not his wife. He said that people who loved them to excess were 
capable of the worst cruelties toward human beings. He said that dogs 
were not loyal but servile, that cats were opportunists and traitors, that 
peacocks were heralds of death, that macaws were simply decorative 
annoyances, that rabbits fomented greed, that monkeys carried the 
fever of lust, and that roosters were damned because they had been 
complicit in the three denials of Christ. 

On the other hand, Fermina Daza, his wife, who at that time was 
seventy-two years old and had already lost the doe's gait of her 
younger days, was an irrational idolater of tropical flowers and 
domestic animals, and early in her marriage she had taken advantage 
of the novelty of love to keep many more of them in the house than 
good sense would allow. The first were three Dalmatians named after 
Roman emperors, who fought for the favors of a female who did honor 
to her name of Messalina, for it took her longer to give birth to nine 
pups than to conceive another ten. Then there were Abyssinian cats 
with the profiles of eagles and the manners of pharaohs, cross-eyed 
Siamese and palace Persians with orange eyes, who walked through 
the rooms like shadowy phantoms and shattered the night with the 
howling of their witches' sabbaths of love. For several years an 



Amazonian monkey, chained by his waist to the mango tree in the 
patio, elicited a certain compassion because he had the sorrowful face 
of Archbishop Obdulio y Rey, the same candid eyes, the same eloquent 
hands; that, however, was not the reason Fermina got rid of him, but 
because he had the bad habit of pleasuring himself in honor of the 
ladies. 

There were all kinds of Guatemalan birds in cages along the 
passageways, and premonitory curlews, and swamp herons with long 
yellow legs, and a young stag who came in through the windows to eat 
the anthurium in the flowerpots. Shortly before the last civil war, when 
there was talk for the first time of a possible visit by the Pope, they 
had brought a bird of paradise from Guatemala, but it took longer to 
arrive than to return to its homeland when it was learned that the 
announcement of the pontifical visit had been a lie spread by the 
government to alarm the conspiratorial Liberals. Another time, on the 
smugglers' ships from Curagao, they bought a wicker cage with six 
perfumed crows identical to the ones that Fermina Daza had kept as a 
girl in her father's house and that she still wanted to have as a married 
woman. But no one could bear the continual flapping of their wings 
that filled the house with the reek of funeral wreaths. They also 
brought in an anaconda, four meters long, whose insomniac hunter's 
sighs disturbed the darkness in the bedrooms although it accomplished 
what they had wanted, which was to frighten with its mortal breath the 
bats and salamanders and countless species of harmful insects that 
invaded the house during the rainy months. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, so 
occupied at that time with his professional obligations and so absorbed 
in his civic and cultural enterprises, was content to assume that in the 
midst of so many abominable creatures his wife was not only the most 



beautiful woman in the Caribbean but also the happiest. But one rainy 
afternoon, at the end of an exhausting day, he encountered a disaster 
in the house that brought him to his senses. Out of the drawing room, 
and for as far as the eye could see, a stream of dead animals floated 
in a marsh of blood. The servant girls had climbed on the chairs, not 
knowing what to do, and they had not yet recovered from the panic of 
the slaughter. 

One of the German mastiffs, maddened by a sudden attack of rabies, 
had torn to pieces every animal of any kind that crossed its path, until 
the gardener from the house next door found the courage to face him 
and hack him to pieces with his machete. No one knew how many 
creatures he had bitten or contaminated with his green slaverings, and 
so Dr. Urbino ordered the survivors killed and their bodies burned in 
an isolated field, and he requested the services of Misericordia Hospital 
for a thorough disinfecting of the house. The only animal to escape, 
because nobody remembered him, was the giant lucky charm tortoise. 
Fermina Daza admitted for the first time that her husband was right in 
a domestic matter, and for a long while afterward she was careful to 
say no more about animals. She consoled herself with color 
illustrations from Linnaeus's Natural History, which she framed and 
hung on the drawing room walls, and perhaps she would eventually 
have lost all hope of ever seeing an animal in the house again if it had 
not been for the thieves who, early one morning, forced a bathroom 
window and made off with the silver service that had been in the 
family for five generations. Dr. Urbino put double padlocks on the 
window frames, secured the doors on the inside with iron crossbars, 
placed his most valuable possessions in the strongbox, and belatedly 
acquired the wartime habit of sleeping with a revolver under his 



pillow. But he opposed the purchase of a fierce dog, vaccinated or 
unvaccinated, running loose or chained up, even if thieves were to 
steal everything he owned. 

"Nothing that does not speak will come into this house," he said. 
He said it to put an end to the specious arguments of his wife, who was 
once again determined to buy a dog, and he never imagined that his 
hasty generalization was to cost him his life. Fermina Daza, whose 
straightforward character had become more subtle with the years, 
seized on her husband's casual words, and months after the robbery 
she returned to the ships from Curagao and bought a royal Paramaribo 
parrot, who knew only the blasphemies of sailors but said them in a 
voice so human that he was well worth the extravagant price of twelve 
centavos. 

He was a fine parrot, lighter than he seemed, with a yellow head and a 
black tongue, the only way to distinguish him from mangrove parrots 
who did not learn to speak even with turpentine suppositories. Dr. 
Urbino, a good loser, bowed to the ingenuity of his wife and was even 
surprised at how amused he was by the advances the parrot made 
when he was excited by the servant girls. On rainy afternoons, his 
tongue loosened by the pleasure of having his feathers drenched, he 
uttered phrases from another time, which he could not have learned in 
the house and which led one to think that he was much older than he 
appeared. The Doctor's final doubts collapsed one night when the 
thieves tried to get in again through a skylight in the attic, and the 
parrot frightened them with a mastiff's barking that could not have 
been more realistic if it had been real, and with shouts of stop thief 
stop thief stop thief, two saving graces he had not learned in the 
house. It was then that Dr. Urbino took charge of him and ordered the 



construction of a perch under the mango tree with a container for 
water, another for ripe bananas, and a trapeze for acrobatics. From 
December through March, when the nights were cold and the north 
winds made living outdoors unbearable, he was taken inside to sleep 
in the bedrooms in a cage covered by a blanket, although Dr. Urbino 
suspected that his chronic swollen glands might be a threat to the 
healthy respiration of humans. For many years they clipped his wing 
feathers and let him wander wherever he chose to walk with his 
hulking old horseman's gait. But one day he began to do acrobatic 
tricks on the beams in the kitchen and fell into the pot of stew with a 
sailor's shout of every man for himself, and with such good luck that 
the cook managed to scoop him out with the ladle, scalded and 
deplumed but still alive. From then on he was kept in the cage even 
during the daytime, in defiance of the vulgar belief that caged parrots 
forget everything they have learned, and let out only in the four 
o'clock coolness for his classes with Dr. Urbino on the terrace in the 
patio. No one realized in time that his wings were too long, and they 
were about to clip them that morning when he escaped to the top of 
the mango tree. 

And for three hours they had not been able to catch him. The servant 
girls, with the help of other maids in the neighborhood, had used all 
kinds of tricks to lure him down, but he insisted on staying where he 
was, laughing madly as he shouted long live the Liberal Party, long 
live the Liberal Party damn it, a reckless cry that had cost many a 
carefree drunk his life. Dr. Urbino could barely see him amid the 
leaves, and he tried to cajole him in Spanish and French and even in 
Latin, and the parrot responded in the same languages and with the 
same emphasis and timbre in his voice, but he did not move from his 



treetop. Convinced that no one was going to make him move 
voluntarily, Dr. Urbino had them send for the fire department, his most 
recent civic pastime. 

Until just a short time before, in fact, fires had been put out by 
volunteers using brickmasons' ladders and buckets of water carried in 
from wherever it could be found, and methods so disorderly that they 
sometimes caused more damage than the fires. But for the past year, 
thanks to a fund- organized by the Society for Public I mprovement, of 
which Juvenal Urbino was honorary president, there was a corps of 
professional firemen and a water truck with a siren and a bell and two 
high-pressure hoses. They were so popular that classes were 
suspended when the church bells were heard sounding the alarm, so 
that children could watch them fight the fire. At first that was all they 
did. But Dr. Urbino told the municipal authorities that in Hamburg he 
had seen firemen revive a boy found frozen in a basement after a 
three-day snowstorm. He had also seen them in a Neapolitan alley 
lowering a corpse in his coffin from a tenth-floor balcony because the 
stairway in the building had so many twists and turns that the family 
could not get him down to the street. That was how the local firemen 
learned to render other emergency services, such as forcing locks or 
killing poisonous snakes, and the Medical School offered them a 
special course in first aid for minor accidents. So it was in no way 
peculiar to ask them to please get a distinguished parrot, with all the 
qualities of a gentleman, out of a tree. Dr. Urbino said: "Tell them it's 
for me." And he went to his bedroom to dress for the gala luncheon. 
The truth was that at that moment, devastated by the letter from 
J eremiah de Saint-Amour, he did not really care about the fate of the 
parrot. 



Fermina Daza had put on a loose-fitting silk dress belted at the hip, a 
necklace of real pearls with six long, uneven loops, and high-heeled 
satin shoes that she wore only on very solemn occasions, for by now 
she was too old for such abuses. Her stylish attire did not seem 
appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her 
figure--long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands 
without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her 
cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that 
were left to her from her wedding portrait, but what she had been 
deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and 
diligence. She felt very well: the time of iron corsets, bound waists, 
and bustles that exaggerated buttocks was receding into the past. 
Liberated bodies, breathing freely, showed themselves for what they 
were. Even at the age of seventy-two. 

Dr. Urbino found her sitting at her dressing table under the slow blades 
of the electric fan, putting on her bell-shaped hat decorated with felt 
violets. The bedroom was large and bright, with an English bed 
protected by mosquito netting embroidered in pink, and two windows 
open to the trees in the patio, where one could hear the clamor of 
cicadas, giddy with premonitions of rain. Ever since their return from 
their honeymoon, Fermina Daza had chosen her husband's clothes 
according to the weather and the occasion, and laid them out for him 
on a chair the night before so they would be ready for him when he 
came out of the bathroom. She could not remember when she had also 
begun to help him dress, and finally to dress him, and she was aware 
that at first she had done it for love, but for the past five years or so 
she had been obliged to do it regardless of the reason because he 
could not dress himself. They had just celebrated their golden wedding 



anniversary, and they were not capable of living for even an instant 
without the other, or without thinking about the other, and that 
capacity diminished as their age increased. Neither could have said if 
their mutual dependence was based on love or convenience, but they 
had never asked the question with their hands on their hearts because 
both had always preferred not to know the answer. Little by little she 
had been discovering the uncertainty of her husband's step, his mood 
changes, the gaps in his memory, his recent habit of sobbing while he 
slept, but she did not identify these as the unequivocal signs of final 
decay but rather as a happy return to childhood. That was why she did 
not treat him like a difficult old man but as a senile baby, and that 
deception was providential for the two of them because it put them 
beyond the reach of pity. 

Life would have been quite another matter for them both if they had 
learned in time that it was easier to avoid great matrimonial 
catastrophes than trivial everyday miseries. But if they had learned 
anything together, it was that wisdom comes to us when it can no 
longer do any good. For years Fermina Daza had endured her 
husband's jubilant dawns with a bitter heart. She clung to the last 
threads of sleep in order to avoid facing the fatality of another 
morning full of sinister premonitions, while he awoke with the 
innocence of a newborn: each new day was one more day he had won. 
She heard him awake with the roosters, and his first sign of life was a 
cough without rhyme or reason that seemed intended to awaken her 
too. She heard him grumble, just to annoy her, while he felt around 
for the slippers that were supposed to be next to the bed. She heard 
him make his way to the bathroom, groping in the dark. After an hour 
in his study, when she had fallen asleep again, he would come back to 



dress, still without turning on the light. Once, during a party game, he 
had been asked how he defined himself, and he had said: "I am a man 
who dresses in the dark." She heard him, knowing full well that not 
one of those noises was indispensable, and that he made them on 
purpose although he pretended not to, just as she was awake and 
pretended not to be. His motives were clear: he never needed her 
awake and lucid as much as he did during those fumbling moments. 
There was no sleeper more elegant than she, with her curved body 
posed for a dance and her hand across her forehead, but there was 
also no one more ferocious when anyone disturbed the sensuality of 
her thinking she was still asleep when she no longer was. Dr. Urbino 
knew she was waiting for his slightest sound, that she even would be 
grateful for it, just so she could blame someone for waking her at five 
o'clock in the morning, so that on the few occasions when he had to 
feel around in the dark because he could not find his slippers in their 
customary place, she would suddenly say in a sleepy voice: "You left 
them in the bathroom last night." Then right after that, her voice fully 
awake with rage, she would curse: "The worst misfortune in this house 
is that nobody lets you sleep." 

Then she would roll over in bed and turn on the light without the least 
mercy for herself, content with her first victory of the day. The truth 
was they both played a game, mythical and perverse, but for all that 
comforting: it was one of the many dangerous pleasures of domestic 
love. But one of those trivial games almost ended the first thirty years 
of their life together, because one day there was no soap in the 
bathroom. 

It began with routine simplicity. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had returned to the 
bedroom, in the days when he still bathed without help, and begun to 



dress without turning on the light. As usual she was in her warm fetal 
state, her eyes closed, her breathing shallow, that arm from a sacred 
dance above her head. But she was only half asleep, as usual, and 
he knew it. After a prolonged sound of starched linen in the darkness, 
Dr. Urbino said to himself: 

"I've been bathing for almost a week without any soap." 
Then, fully awake, she remembered, and tossed and turned in fury 
with the world because in fact she had forgotten to replace the soap in 
the bathroom. She had noticed its absence three days earlier when she 
was already under the shower, and she had planned to replace it 
afterward, but then she forgot until the next day, and on the third day 
the same thing happened again. The truth was that a week had not 
gone by, as he said to make her feel more guilty, but three 
unpardonable days, and her anger at being found out in a mistake 
maddened her. As always, she defended herself by attacking. 
"Well I've bathed every day," she shouted, beside herself with rage, 
"and there's always been soap." 

Although he knew her battle tactics by heart, this time he could not 
abide them. On some professional pretext or other he went to live in 
the interns' quarters at Misericordia Hospital, returning home only to 
change his clothes before making his evening house calls. She headed 
for the kitchen when she heard him come in, pretending that she had 
something to do, and stayed there until she heard his carriage in the 
street. For the next three months, each time they tried to resolve the 
conflict they only inflamed their feelings even more. He was not ready 
to come back as long as she refused to admit there had been no soap 
in the bathroom, and she was not prepared to have him back until he 
recognized that he had consciously lied to torment her. 



The incident, of course, gave them the opportunity to evoke many 
other trivial quarrels from many other dim and turbulent dawns. 
Resentments stirred up other resentments, reopened old scars, turned 
them into fresh wounds, and both were dismayed at the desolating 
proof that in so many years of conjugal battling they had done little 
more than nurture their rancor. At last he proposed that they both 
submit to an open confession, with the Archbishop himself if necessary, 
so that God could decide once and for all whether or not there had 
been soap in the soap dish in the bathroom. Then, despite all her 
selfcontrol, she lost her temper with a historic cry: 
"To hell with the Archbishop!" 

The impropriety shook the very foundations of the city, gave rise to 
slanders that were not easy to disprove, and was preserved in popular 
tradition as if it were a line from an operetta: "To hell with the 
Archbishop!" Realizing she had gone too far, she anticipated her 
husband's predictable response and threatened to move back to her 
father's old house, which still belonged to her although it had been 
rented out for public offices, and live there by herself. And it was not 
an idle threat: she really did want to leave and did not care about the 
scandal, and her husband realized this in time. He did not have the 
courage to defy his own prejudices, and he capitulated. Not in the 
sense that he admitted there had been soap in the bathroom, but 
insofar as he continued to live in the same house with her, although 
they slept in separate rooms, and he did not say a word to her. They 
ate in silence, sparring with so much skill that they sent each other 
messages across the table through the children, and the children never 
realized that they were not speaking to each other. 
Since the study had no bathroom, the arrangement solved the problem 



of noise in the morning, because he came in to bathe after preparing 
his class and made a sincere effort not to awaken his wife. They would 
often arrive at the bathroom at the same time, and 
then they took turns brushing their teeth before going to sleep. After 
four months had gone by, he lay down on their double bed one night 
to read until she came out of the bathroom, as he often did, and he 
fell asleep. She lay down beside him in a rather careless way so that 
he would wake up and leave. And in fact he did stir, but instead of 
getting up he turned out the light and settled himself on the pillow. 
She shook him by the shoulder to remind him that he was supposed to 
go to the study, but it felt so comfortable to be back in his 
great-grandparents' featherbed that he preferred to capitulate. 
"Let me stay here," he said. "There was soap." 

When they recalled this episode, now they had rounded the corner of 
old age, neither could believe the astonishing truth that this had been 
the most serious argument in fifty years of living together, and the 
only one that had made them both want to abandon their 
responsibilities and begin a new life. Even when they were old and 
placid they were careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed 
wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted only 
yesterday. 

He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate. She heard him 
on their wedding night, while she lay prostrate with seasickness in the 
stateroom on the ship that was carrying them to France, and the sound 
of his stallion's stream seemed so potent, so replete with authority, 
that it increased her terror of the devastation to come. That memory 
often returned to her as the years weakened the stream, for she never 
could resign herself to his wetting the rim of the toilet bowl each time 



he used it. Dr. Urbino tried to convince her, with arguments readily 
understandable to anyone who wished to understand them, that the 
mishap was not repeated every day through carelessness on his part, 
as she insisted, but because of organic reasons: as a young man his 
stream was so defined and so direct that when he was at school he 
won contests for marksmanship in filling bottles, but with the ravages 
of age it was not only decreasing, it was also becoming oblique and 
scattered, and had at last turned into a .fantastic fountain, impossible 
to control despite his many efforts to direct it. He would say: "The 
toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about 
men." He contributed to domestic peace with a quotidian act that was 
more humiliating than humble: he wiped the rim of the bowl with toilet 
paper each time he used it. She knew, but never said anything as long 
as the ammoniac fumes were not too strong in the bathroom, and then 
she proclaimed, as if she had uncovered a crime: "This stinks like a 
rabbit hutch." On the eve of old age this physical difficulty inspired Dr. 
Urbino with the ultimate solution: he urinated sitting down, as she did, 
which kept the bowl clean and him in a state of grace. 
By this time he could do very little for himself, and the possibility of a 
fatal slip in the tub put him on his guard against the shower. The house 
was modern and did not have the pewter tub with lion's-paw feet 
common in the mansions of the old city. He had had it removed for 
hygienic reasons: the bathtub was another piece of abominable junk 
invented by Europeans who bathed only on the last Friday of the 
month, and then in the same water made filthy by the very dirt they 
tried to remove from their bodies. So he had ordered an outsized 
washtub made of solid lignum vitae, in which Fermina Daza bathed her 
husband just as if he were a newborn child. Waters boiled with mallow 



leaves and orange skins were mixed into the bath that lasted over an 
hour, and the effect on him was so sedative that he sometimes fell 
asleep in the perfumed infusion. After bathing him, Fermina Daza 
helped him to dress: she sprinkled talcum powder between his legs, 
she smoothed cocoa butter on his rashes, she helped him put on his 
undershorts with as much love as if they had been a diaper, and 
continued dressing him, item by item, from his socks to the knot in his 
tie with the topaz pin. Their conjugal dawns grew calm because he had 
returned to the childhood his children had taken away from him. And 
she, in turn, at last accepted the domestic schedule because the years 
were passing for her too; she slept less and less, and by the time she 
was seventy she was awake before her husband. 
On Pentecost Sunday, when he lifted the blanket to look at J eremiah 
de Saint-Amour's body, Dr. Urbino experienced the revelation of 
something that had been denied him until then in his most lucid 
peregrinations as a physician and a believer. After so many years of 
familiarity with death, after battling it for so long, after so much 
turning it inside out and upside down, it was as if he had dared to look 
death in the face for the first time, and it had looked back at him. It 
was not the fear of death. No: that fear had been inside him for many 
years, it had lived with him, it had been another shadow cast over his 
own shadow ever since the night he awoke, shaken by a bad dream, 
and realized that death was not only a permanent probability, as he 
had always believed, but an immediate reality. What he had seen that 
day, however, was the physical presence of something that until that 
moment had been only an imagined certainty. He was very glad that 
the instrument used by Divine Providence for that overwhelming 
revelation had been Jeremiah de SaintAmour, whom he had always 



considered a saint unaware of his own state of grace. But when the 
letter revealed his true identity, his sinister past, his inconceivable 
powers of deception, he felt that something definitive and irrevocable 
had occurred in his life. 

Nevertheless Fermina Daza did not allow him to infect her with his 
somber mood. He tried, of course, while she helped him put his legs 
into his trousers and worked the long row of buttons on his shirt. But 
he failed because Fermina Daza was not easy to impress, least of all 
by the death of a man she did not care for. All she knew about him 
was that J eremiah de Saint-Amour was a cripple on crutches whom she 
had never seen, that he had escaped the firing squad during one of 
many insurrections on one of many islands in the Antilles, that he had 
become a photographer of children out of necessity and had become 
the most successful one in the province, and that he had won a game 
of chess from someone she remembered as Torremolinos but in reality 
was named Capablanca. 

"But he was nothing more than a fugitive from Cayenne, condemned to 
life imprisonment for an atrocious crime," said Dr. Urbino. "Imagine, 
he had even eaten human flesh." 

He handed her the letter whose secrets he wanted to carry with him to 
the grave, but she put the folded sheets in her dressing table without 
reading them and locked the drawer with a key. She was accustomed 
to her husband's unfathomable capacity for astonishment, his 
exaggerated opinions that became more incomprehensible as the 
years went by, his narrowness of mind that was out of tune with his 
public image. But this time he had outdone himself. She had supposed 
that her husband held J eremiah de SaintAmour in esteem not for what 
he had once been but for what he began to be after he arrived here 



with only his exile's rucksack, and she could not understand why he 

was so distressed by the disclosure of his true identity at this late date. 

She did not comprehend why he thought it an abomination that he had 

had a woman in secret, since that was an atavistic custom of a certain 

kind of man, himself included, yes even he in a moment of 

ingratitude, and besides, it seemed to her a heartbreaking proof of 

love that she had helped him carry out his decision to die. She said: "If 

you also decided to do that for reasons as serious as his, my duty 

would be to do what she did." Once again Dr. Urbino 

found himself face to face with the simple incomprehension that had 

exasperated him for a half a century. 

"You don't understand anything," he said. "What infuriates me is not 

what he was or what he did, but the deception he practiced on all of us 

for so many years." 

His eyes began to fill with easy tears, but she pretended not to see. 

"He did the right thing," she replied. "If he had told the truth, not you 

or that poor woman or anybody in this town would have loved him as 

much as they did." 

She threaded his watch chain through the buttonhole in his vest. She 

put the finishing touches to the knot in his tie and pinned on his topaz 

tiepin. Then she dried his eyes and wiped his teary beard with the 

handkerchief sprinkled with florida water and put that in his breast 

pocket, its corners spread open like a magnolia. The eleven strokes of 

the pendulum clock sounded in the depths of the house. 

"Hurry," she said, taking him by the arm. "We'll be late." 

Aminta Dechamps, Dr. Lacides Olivella's wife, and her seven equally 

diligent daughters, had arranged every detail so that the silver 

anniversary luncheon would be the social event of the year. The family 



home, in the very center of the historic district, was the old mint, 
denatured by a Florentine architect who came through here like an ill 
wind blowing renovation and converted many seventeenth-century 
relics into Venetian basilicas. It had six bedrooms and two large, 
well-ventilated dining and reception rooms, but that was not enough 
space for the guests from the city, not to mention the very select few 
from out of town. The patio was like an abbey cloister, with a stone 
fountain murmuring in the center and pots of heliotrope that perfumed 
the house at dusk, but the space among the arcades was inadequate 
for so many grand family names. So it was decided to hold the 
luncheon in their country house that was ten minutes away by 
automobile along the King's Highway and, had over an acre of patio, 
and enormous Indian laurels, and local water lilies in a gently flowing 
river. The men from Don Sancho's Inn, under the supervision of 
Sehora de Olivella, hung colored canvas awnings in the sunny areas 
and raised a platform under the laurels with tables for one hundred 
twenty-two guests, with a linen tablecloth on each of them and 
bouquets of the day's fresh roses for the table of honor. They also built 
a wooden dais for a woodwind band whose program was limited to 
contradances and national waltzes, and for a string quartet from the 
School of Fine Arts, which was Sehora de Olivella's surprise for her 
husband's venerable teacher, who would preside over the luncheon. 
Although the date did not correspond exactly to the anniversary of his 
graduation, they chose Pentecost Sunday in order to magnify the 
significance of the celebration. 

The preparations had begun three months earlier, for fear that 
something indispensable would be left undone for lack of time. They 
brought in live chickens from Cienaga de Oro, famous all along the 



coast not only for their size and flavor but because in colonial times 
they had scratched for food in alluvial deposits and little nuggets of 
pure gold were found in their gizzards. Sehora de Olivella herself, 
accompanied by some of her daughters and her domestic staff, 
boarded the luxury ocean liners and selected the best from 
everywhere to honor her husband's achievements. She had anticipated 
everything except that the celebration would take place on a Sunday in 
June in a year when the rains were late. She realized the danger that 
very morning when she went to High Mass and was horrified by the 
humidity and saw that the sky was heavy and low and that one could 
not see to the ocean's horizon. Despite these ominous signs, the 
Director of the Astronomical Observatory, whom she met at Mass, 
reminded her that in all the troubled history of the city, even during 
the crudest winters, it had never rained on Pentecost. Still, when the 
clocks struck twelve and many of the guests were already having an 
aperitif outdoors, a single crash of thunder made the earth tremble, 
and a turbulent wind from the sea knocked over the tables and blew 
down the canopies, and the sky collapsed in a catastrophic downpour. 
I n the chaos of the storm Dr. J uvenal Urbino, along with the other late 
guests whom he had met on the road, had great difficulty reaching the 
house, and like them he wanted to move from the carriage to the 
house by jumping from stone to stone across the muddy patio, but at 
last he had to accept the humiliation of being carried by Don Sancho's 
men under a yellow canvas canopy. They did the best they could to set 
up the separate tables again inside the house—even in the 
bedrooms--and the guests made no effort to disguise their surly, 
shipwrecked mood. It was as hot as a ship's boiler room, for the 
windows had to be closed to keep out the wind-driven rain. I n the 



patio each place at the tables had been marked with a card bearing 
the name of the guest, one side reserved for men and the other for 
women, according to custom. But inside the house the name cards 
were in confusion and people sat where they could in an obligatory 
promiscuity that defied our social superstitions on at least this one 
occasion. I n the midst of the cataclysm Aminta de Olivella seemed to 
be everywhere at once, her hair soaking wet and her splendid dress 
spattered with mud, but bearing up under the misfortune with the 
invincible smile, learned from her husband, that would give no quarter 
to adversity. With the help of her daughters, who were cut from the 
same cloth, she did everything possible to keep the places at the table 
of honor in order, with Dr. J uvenal Urbino in the center and Archbishop 
Obdulio y Rey on his right. Fermina Daza sat next to her husband, as 
she always did, for fear he would fall asleep during the meal or spill 
soup on his lapel. Across from him sat Dr. Lacides Olivella, a 
well-preserved man of about fifty with an effeminate air, whose festive 
spirit seemed in no way related to his accurate diagnoses. The rest of 
the table was occupied by provincial and municipal officials and last 
year's beauty queen, whom the Governor escorted to the seat next to 
him. Although it was not customary for invitations to request special 
attire, least of all for a luncheon in the country, the women wore 
evening gowns and precious jewels and most of the men were dressed 
in dinner jackets with black ties, and some even wore frock coats. Only 
the most sophisticated, Dr. Urbino among them, wore their ordinary 
clothes. At each place was a menu printed in French, with golden 
vignettes. 

Sehora de Olivella, horror-struck by the devastating heat, went 
through the house pleading with the men to take off their jackets 



during the luncheon, but no one dared to be the first. The Archbishop 
commented to Dr. Urbino that in a sense this was a historic luncheon: 
there, together for the first time at the same table, their wounds 
healed and their anger dissipated, sat the two opposing sides in the 
civil wars that had bloodied the country ever since Independence. This 
thought accorded with the enthusiasm of the Liberals, especially the 
younger ones, who had succeeded in electing a president from their 
party after forty-five years of Conservative hegemony. Dr. Urbino did 
not agree: in his opinion a Liberal president was exactly the same as a 
Conservative president, but not as well dressed. But he did not want to 
contradict the Archbishop, although he would have liked to point out to 
him that guests were at that luncheon not because of what they 
thought but because of the merits of their lineage, which was 
something that had always stood over and above the hazards of 
politics and the horrors of war. From this point of view, in fact, not a 
single person was missing. 

The downpour ended as suddenly as it had begun, and the sun began 
to shine in a cloudless sky, but the storm had been so violent that 
several trees were uprooted and the overflowing stream had turned 
the patio into a swamp. The greatest disaster had occurred in the 
kitchen. Wood fires had been built outdoors on bricks behind the 
house, and the cooks barely had time to rescue their pots from the 
rain. They lost precious time reorganizing the flooded kitchen and 
improvising new fires in the back gallery. But by one o'clock the crisis 
had been resolved and only the dessert was missing: the Sisters of St. 
Clare were in charge of that, and they had promised to send it before 
eleven. It was feared that the ditch along the King's Highway had 
flooded, as it did even in less severe winters, and in that case it would 



be at least two hours before the dessert arrived. As soon as the 
weather cleared they opened the windows, and the house was cooled 
by air that had been purified by the sulfurous storm. Then the band 
was told to play its program of waltzes on the terrace of the portico, 
and that only heightened the confusion because everyone had to shout 
to be heard over the banging of copper pots inside the house. Tired of 
waiting, smiling even on the verge of tears, Aminta de Olivella ordered 
luncheon to be served. 

The group from the School of Fine Arts began their concert in the 
formal silence achieved for the opening bars of Mozart's "La Chasse." 
Despite the voices that grew louder and more confused and the 
intrusions of Don Sancho's black servants, who could barely squeeze 
past the tables with their steaming serving dishes, Dr. Urbino managed 
to keep a channel open to the music until the program was over. His 
powers of concentration had decreased so much with the passing years 
that he had to write down each chess move in order to remember what 
he had planned. Yet he could still engage in serious conversation and 
follow a concert at the same time, although he never reached the 
masterful extremes of a German orchestra conductor, a great friend of 
his during his time in Austria, who read the score of Don Giovanni 
while listening to Tannhauser. 

He thought that the second piece on the program, Schubert's "Death 
and the Maiden," was played with facile theatricality. While he strained 
to listen through the clatter of covered dishes, he stared at a blushing 
boy who nodded to him in greeting. He had seen him somewhere, no 
doubt about that, but he could not remember where. This often 
happened to him, above all with people's names, even those he knew 
well, or with a melody from other times, and it caused him such 



dreadful anguish that one night he would have preferred to die rather 
than endure it until dawn. He was on the verge of reaching that state 
now when a charitable flash illuminated his memory: the boy had been 
one of his students last year. He was surprised to see him there, in the 
kingdom of the elect, but Dr. Olivella reminded him that he was the 
son of the Minister of Health and was preparing a thesis in forensic 
medicine. Dr. Juvenal Urbino greeted him with a joyful wave of his 
hand and the young doctor stood up and responded with a bow. But not 
then, not ever, did he realize that this was the intern who had been 
with him that morning in the house of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour. 
Comforted by yet another victory over old age, he surrendered to the 
diaphanous and fluid lyricism of the final piece on the program, which 
he could not identify. Later the young cellist, who had just returned 
from France, told him it was a quartet for strings by Gabriel Faure, 
whom Dr. Urbino had not even heard of, although he was always very 
alert to the latest trends in Europe. Fermina Daza, who was keeping an 
eye on him as she always did, but most of all when she saw him 
becoming introspective in public, stopped eating and put her earthly 
hand on his. She said: "Don't think about it anymore." Dr. Urbino 
smiled at her from the far shore of ecstasy, and it was then that he 
began to think again about what she had feared. He remembered 
Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, on view at that hour in his coffin, in his 
bogus military uniform with his fake decorations, under the accusing 
eyes of the children in the portraits. He turned to the Archbishop to tell 
him about the suicide, but he had already heard the news. There had 
been a good deal of talk after High Mass, and he had even received a 
request from General J eronimo Argote, on behalf of the Caribbean 
refugees, that he be buried in holy ground. He said: "The request 



itself, it seemed to me, showed a lack of respect." Then, in a more 
humane tone, he asked if anyone knew the reason for the suicide. Dr. 
Urbino answered: "Gerontophobia," the proper word although he 
thought he had just invented it. Dr. Olivella, attentive to the guests 
who were sitting closest to him, stopped listening to them for a 
moment to take part in his teacher's conversation. He said: "It is a pity 
to still find a suicide that is not for love." Dr. Urbino was not surprised 
to recognize his own thoughts in those of his favorite disciple. 
"And worse yet," he said, "with gold cyanide." 

When he said that, he once again felt compassion prevailing over the 
bitterness caused by the letter, for which he thanked not his wife but 
rather a miracle of the music. Then he spoke to the Archbishop of the 
lay saint he had known in their long twilights of chess, he spoke of the 
dedication of his art to the happiness of children, his rare erudition in 
all things of this world, his Spartan habits, and he himself was 
surprised by the purity of soul with which J eremiah de Saint-Amour 
had separated himself once and for all from his past. Then he spoke to 
the Mayor about the advantages of purchasing his files of photographic 
plates in order to preserve the images of a generation who might 
never again be happy outside their portraits and in whose hands lay 
the future of the city. The Archbishop was scandalized that a militant 
and educated Catholic would dare to think that a suicide was saintly, 
but he agreed with the plan to create an archive of the negatives. The 
Mayor wanted to know from whom they were to be purchased. Dr. 
Urbino's tongue burned with the live coal of the secret. "I will take care 
of it." And he felt redeemed by his own loyalty to the woman he had 
repudiated five hours earlier. Fermina Daza noticed it and in a low 
voice made him promise that he would attend the funeral. Relieved, 



he said that of course he would, that went without saying. 
The speeches were brief and simple. The woodwind band began a 
popular tune that had not been announced on the program, and the 
guests strolled along the terraces, waiting for the men from Don 
Sancho's Inn to finish drying the patio in case anyone felt inclined to 
dance. The only guests who stayed in the drawing room were those at 
the table of honor, who were celebrating the fact that Dr. Urbino had 
drunk half a glass of brandy in one swallow in a final toast. No one 
recalled that he had already done the same thing with a glass of grand 
cru wine as accompaniment to a very special dish, but his heart had 
demanded it of him that afternoon, and his self-indulgence was well 
repaid: once again, after so many long years, he felt like singing. And 
he would have, no doubt, on the urging of the young cellist who 
offered to accompany him, if one of those new automobiles had not 
suddenly driven across the mudhole of the patio, splashing the 
musicians and rousing the ducks in the barnyards with the quacking of 
its horn. It stopped in front of the portico and Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino 
Daza and his wife emerged, laughing for all they were worth and 
carrying a tray covered with lace cloths in each hand. Other trays just 
like them were on the jump seats and even on the floor next to the 
chauffeur. It was the belated dessert. When the applause and the 
shouted cordial jokes had ended, Dr. Urbino Daza explained in all 
seriousness that before the storm broke, the Sisters of St. Clare had 
asked him to please bring the dessert, but he had left the King's 
Highway because someone said that his parents' house was on fire. Dr. 
Juvenal Urbino became upset before his son could finish the story, but 
his wife reminded him in time that he himself had called for the 
firemen to rescue the parrot. Aminta de Olivella was radiant as she 



decided to serve the dessert on the terraces even though they had 
already had their coffee. But Dr. J uvenal Urbino and his wife left 
without tasting it, for there was barely enough time for him to have his 
sacred siesta before the funeral. 

And he did have it, although his sleep was brief and restless because 
he discovered when he returned home that the firemen had caused 
almost as much damage as a fire. I n their efforts to frighten the parrot 
they had stripped a tree with the pressure hoses, and a misdirected jet 
of water through the windows of the master bedroom had caused 
irreparable damage to the furniture and to the portraits of unknown 
forebears hanging on the walls. Thinking that there really was a fire, 
the neighbors had hurried over when they heard the bell on the fire 
truck, and if the disturbance was no worse, it was because the schools 
were closed on Sundays. When they realized they could not reach the 
parrot even with their extension ladders, the firemen began to chop at 
the branches with machetes, and only the opportune arrival of Dr. 
Urbino Daza prevented them from mutilating the tree all the way to 
the trunk. They left, saying they would return after five o'clock if they 
received permission to prune, and on their way out they muddied the 
interior terrace and the drawing room and ripped Fermina Daza's 
favorite Turkish rug. Needless disasters, all of them, because the 
general impression was that the parrot had taken advantage of the 
chaos to escape through neighboring patios. And in fact Dr. Urbino 
looked for him in the foliage, but there was no response in any 
language, not even to whistles and songs, so he gave him up for lost 
and went to sleep when it was almost three o'clock. But first he 
enjoyed the immediate pleasure of smelling a secret garden in his 
urine that had been purified by lukewarm asparagus. 



He was awakened by sadness. Not the sadness he had felt that 
morning when he stood before the corpse of his friend, but the 
invisible cloud that would saturate his soul after his siesta and which 
he interpreted as divine notification that he was living his final 
afternoons. Until the age of fifty he had not been conscious of the size 
and weight and condition of his organs. Little by little, as he lay with 
his eyes closed after his daily siesta, he had begun to feel them, one 
by one, inside his body, feel the shape of his insomniac heart, his 
mysterious liver, his hermetic pancreas, and he had slowly discovered 
that even the oldest people were younger than he was and that he had 
become the only survivor of his generation's legendary group portraits. 
When he became aware of his first bouts of forgetfulness, he had 
recourse to a tactic he had heard about from one of his teachers at the 
Medical School: "The man who has no memory makes one out of 
paper." But this was a short-lived illusion, for he had reached the stage 
where he would forget what the written reminders in his pockets 
meant, search the entire house for the eyeglasses he was wearing, 
turn the key again after locking the doors, and lose the sense of what 
he was reading because he forgot the premise of the argument or the 
relationships among the characters. But what disturbed him most was 
his lack of confidence in his own power of reason: little by little, as in 
an ineluctable shipwreck, he felt himself losing his good judgment. 
With no scientific basis except his own experience, Dr. Juvenal Urbino 
knew that most fatal diseases had their own specific odor, but that 
none was as specific as old age. He detected it in the cadavers slit 
open from head to toe on the dissecting table, he even recognized it in 
patients who hid their age with the greatest success, he smelled it in 
the perspiration on his own clothing and in the unguarded breathing of 



his sleeping wife. If he had not been what he was--in essence an 
old-style Christian—perhaps he would have agreed with Jeremiah de 
Saint-Amour that old age was an indecent state that had to be ended 
before it was too late. The only consolation, even for someone like 
him who had been a good man in bed, was sexual peace: the slow, 
merciful extinction of his venereal appetite. At eighty-one years of age 
he had enough lucidity to realize that he was attached to this world by 
a few slender threads that could break painlessly with a simple change 
of position while he slept, and if he did all he could to keep those 
threads intact, it was because of his terror of not finding God in the 
darkness of death. 

Fermina Daza had been busy straightening the bedroom that had been 
destroyed by the firemen, and a little before four she sent for her 
husband's daily glass of lemonade with chipped ice and reminded him 
that he should dress for the funeral. That afternoon Dr. Urbino had two 
books by his hand: Man, the Unknown by Alexis Carrel and The Story 
of San Michele by Axel Munthe; the pages of the second book were still 
uncut, and he asked Digna Pardo, the cook, to bring him the marble 
paper cutter he had left in the bedroom. But when it was brought to 
him he was already reading Man, the Unknown at the place he had 
marked with an envelope: there were only a few pages left till the 
end. He read slowly, making his way through the meanderings of a 
slight headache that he attributed to the half glass of brandy at the 
final toast. When he paused in his reading he sipped the lemonade or 
took his time chewing on a piece of ice. He was wearing his socks, and 
his shirt without its starched collar; his elastic suspenders with the 
green stripes hung down from his waist. The mere idea of having to 
change for the funeral irritated him. Soon he stopped reading, placed 



one book on top of the other, and began to rock very slowly in the 
wicker rocking chair, contemplating with regret the banana plants in 
the mire of the patio, the stripped mango, the flying ants that came 
after the rain, the ephemeral splendor of another afternoon that would 
never return. He had forgotten that he ever owned a parrot from 
Paramaribo whom he loved as if he were a human being, when 
suddenly he heard him say: "Royal parrot." His voice sounded close 
by, almost next to him, and then he saw him in the lowest branch of 
the mango tree. 
"You scoundrel!" he shouted. 

The parrot answered in an identical voice: "You're even more of a 
scoundrel, Doctor." 

He continued to talk to him, keeping him in view while he put on his 
boots with great care so as not to frighten him and pulled his 
suspenders up over his arms and went down to the patio, which was 
still full of mud, testing the ground with his stick so that he would not 
trip on the three steps of the terrace. The parrot did not move, and 
perched so close to the ground that Dr. Urbino held out his walking 
stick for him so that he could sit on the silver handle, as was his 
custom, but the parrot sidestepped and jumped to the next branch, a 
little higher up but easier to reach since the house ladder had been 
leaning against it even before the arrival of the firemen. Dr. Urbino 
calculated the height and thought that if he climbed two rungs he 
would be able to catch him. He stepped onto the first, singing a 
disarming, friendly song to distract the attention of the churlish bird, 
who repeated the words without the music but sidled still farther out on 
the branch. He climbed to the second rung without difficulty, holding 
on to the ladder with both hands, and the parrot began to repeat the 



entire song without moving from the spot. He climbed to the third rung 
and then the fourth, for he had miscalculated the height of the branch, 
and then he grasped the ladder with his left hand and tried to seize the 
parrot with his right. Digna Pardo, the old servant, who was coming to 
remind him that he would be late for the funeral, saw the back of a 
man standing on the ladder, and she would not have believed that he 
was who he was if it had not been for the green stripes on the elastic 
suspenders. 

"Santisimo Sacramento!" she shrieked. "You'll kill yourself!" 
Dr. Urbino caught the parrot around the neck with a triumphant sigh: 
ga y est. But he released him immediately because the ladder slipped 
from under his feet and for an instant he was suspended in air and 
then he realized that he had died without Communion, without time to 
repent of anything or to say goodbye to anyone, at seven minutes 
after four on Pentecost Sunday. 

Fermina Daza was in the kitchen tasting the soup for supper when she 
heard Digna Pardo's horrified shriek and the shouting of the servants 
and then of the entire neighborhood. She dropped the tasting spoon 
and tried her best to run despite the invincible weight of her age, 
screaming like a madwoman without knowing yet what had happened 
under the mango leaves, and her heart jumped inside her ribs when 
she saw her man lying on his back in the mud, dead to this life but still 
resisting death's final blow for one last minute so that she would have 
time to come to him. He recognized her despite the uproar, through his 
tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at 
her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more 
grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a 
century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last 



breath: 

"Only God knows how much I loved you." 

It was a memorable death, and not without reason. Soon after he had 
completed his course of specialized studies in France, Dr. Juvenal 
Urbino became known in his country for the drastic new methods he 
used to ward off the last cholera epidemic suffered by the province. 
While he was still in Europe, the previous one had caused the death of 
a quarter of the urban population in less than three months; among 
the victims was his father, who was also a highly esteemed physician. 
With his immediate prestige and a sizable contribution from his own 
inheritance, he founded the Medical Society, the first and for many 
years the only one in the Caribbean provinces, of which he was 
lifetime President. He organized the construction of the first aqueduct, 
the first sewer system, and the covered public market that permitted 
filth to be cleaned out of Las Animas Bay. He was also President of the 
Academy of the Language and the Academy of History. For his service 
to the Church, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem made him a Knight of 
the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, and the French Government conferred 
upon him the rank of Commander in the Legion of Honor. He gave 
active encouragement to every religious and civic society in the city 
and had a special interest in the Patriotic Junta, composed of politically 
disinterested influential citizens who urged governments and local 
businesses to adopt progressive ideas that were too daring for the 
time. The most memorable of them was the testing of an aerostatic 
balloon that on its inaugural flight carried a letter to San J uan de la 
Cienaga, long before anyone had thought of airmail as a rational 
possibility. The Center for the Arts, which was also his idea, 
established the School of Fine Arts in the same house where it is still 



located, and for many years he was a patron of the Poetic Festival in 

April. 

Only he achieved what had seemed impossible for at least a century: 
the restoration of the Dramatic Theater, which had been used as a 
henhouse and a breeding farm for game cocks since colonial times. It 
was the culmination of a spectacular civic campaign that involved 
every sector of the city in a multitudinous mobilization that many 
thought worthy of a better cause. I n any event, the new Dramatic 
Theater was inaugurated when it still lacked seats or lights, and the 
audience had to bring their own chairs and their own lighting for the 
intermissions. The same protocol held sway as at the great 
performances in Europe, and the ladies used the occasion to show off 
their long dresses and their fur coats in the dog days of the Caribbean 
summer, but it was also necessary to authorize the admission of 
servants to carry the chairs and lamps and all the things to eat that 
were deemed necessary to survive the interminable programs, one of 
which did not end until it was time for early Mass. The season opened 
with a French opera company whose novelty was a harp in the 
orchestra and whose unforgettable glory was the impeccable voice and 
dramatic talent of a Turkish soprano who sang barefoot and wore rings 
set with precious stones on her toes. After the first act the stage could 
barely be seen and the singers lost their voices because of the smoke 
from so many palm oil lamps, but the chroniclers of the city were very 
careful to delete these minor inconveniences and to magnify the 
memorable events. Without a doubt it was Dr. Urbino's most 
contagious initiative, for opera fever infected the most surprising 
elements in the city and gave rise to a whole generation of Isoldes and 
Otellos and A'i'das and Siegfrieds. But it never reached the extremes 
Dr. Urbino had hoped for, which was to see Italianizers and 
Wagnerians confronting each other with sticks and canes during the 
intermissions. 
Dr. J uvenal Urbino never accepted the public positions that were 

offered to him with frequency and without conditions, and he was a 



pitiless critic of those physicians who used their professional prestige to 
attain political office. Although he was always considered a Liberal and 
was in the habit of voting for that party's candidates, it was more a 
question of tradition than conviction, and he was perhaps the last 
member of the great families who still knelt in the street when the 
Archbishop's carriage drove by. He defined himself as a natural 
pacifist, a partisan of definitive reconciliation between Liberals and 
Conservatives for the good of the nation. But his public conduct was so 
autonomous that no group claimed him for its own: the Liberals 
considered him a Gothic troglodyte, the Conservatives said he was 
almost a Mason, and the Masons repudiated him as a secret cleric in 
the service of the Holy See. His less savage critics thought he was just 
an aristocrat enraptured by the delights of the Poetic Festival while the 
nation bled to death in an endless civil war. 

Only two of his actions did not seem to conform to this image. The first 
was his leaving the former palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, which 
had been the family mansion for over a century, and moving to a new 
house in a neighborhood of nouveaux riches. The other was his 
marriage to a beauty from the lower classes, without name or fortune, 
whom the ladies with long last names ridiculed in secret until they 
were forced to admit that she outshone them all in distinction and 
character. Dr. Urbino was always acutely aware of these and many 
other cracks in his public image, and no one was as conscious as he of 
being the last to bear a family name on its way to extinction. His 
children were two undistinguished ends of a line. After fifty years, his 
son, Marco Aurelio, a doctor like himself and like all the family's 
firstborn sons in every generation, had done nothing worthy of 
note--he had not even produced a child. Dr. Urbino's only daughter, 



Ofelia, was married to a solid bank employee from New Orleans, and 
had reached the climacteric with three daughters and no son. But 
although stemming the flow of his blood into the tide of history caused 
him pain, what worried Dr. Urbino most about dying was the solitary 
life Fermina Daza would lead without him. 

In any event, the tragedy not only caused an uproar among his own 
household but spread to the common people as well. They thronged 
the streets in the hope of seeing something, even if it was only the 
brilliance of the legend. Three days of mourning were proclaimed, 
flags were flown at half mast in public buildings, and the bells in all 
the churches tolled without pause until the crypt in the family 
mausoleum was sealed. A group from the School of Fine Arts made a 
death mask that was to be used as the mold for a life-size bust, but 
the project was canceled because no one thought the faithful rendering 
of his final terror was decent. A renowned artist who happened to be 
stopping here on his way to Europe painted, with pathos-laden realism, 
a gigantic canvas in which Dr. Urbino was depicted on the ladder at the 
fatal moment when he stretched out his hand to capture the parrot. 
The only element that contradicted the raw truth of the story was that 
in the painting he was wearing not the collarless shirt and the 
suspenders with green stripes, but rather a bowler hat and black frock 
coat copied from a rotogravure made during the years of the cholera 
epidemic. So that everyone would have the chance to see it, the 
painting was exhibited for a few months after the tragedy in the vast 
gallery of The Golden Wire, a shop that sold imported merchandise, 
and the entire city filed by. Then it was displayed on the walls of all 
the public and private institutions that felt obliged to pay tribute to the 
memory of their illustrious patron, and at last it was hung, after a 



second funeral, in the School of Fine Arts, where it was pulled down 
many years later by art students who burned it in the Plaza of the 
University as a symbol of an aesthetic and a time they despised. 
From her first moment as a widow, it was obvious that Fermina Daza 
was not as helpless as her husband had feared. She was adamant in 
her determination not to allow the body to be used for any cause, and 
she remained so even after the honorific telegram from the President 
of the Republic ordering it to lie in state for public viewing in the 
Assembly Chamber of the Provincial Government. With the same 
serenity she opposed a vigil in the Cathedral, which the Archbishop 
himself had requested, and she agreed to the body's lying there only 
during the funeral Mass. Even after the mediation of her son, who was 
dumbfounded by so many different requests, Fermina Daza was firm in 
her rustic notion that the dead belong only to the family, and that the 
vigil would be kept at home, with mountain coffee and fritters and 
everyone free to weep for him in any way they chose. There would be 
no traditional nine-night wake: the doors were closed after the funeral 
and did not open again except for visits from intimate friends. 
The house was under the rule of death. Every object of value had been 
locked away with care for safekeeping, and on the bare walls there 
were only the outlines of the pictures that had been taken down. 
Chairs from the house, and those lent by the neighbors, were lined up 
against the walls from the drawing room to the bedrooms, and the 
empty spaces seemed immense and the voices had a ghostly 
resonance because the large pieces of furniture had been moved to 
one side, except for the concert piano which stood in its corner under a 
white sheet. I n the middle of the library, on his father's desk, what had 
once been J uvenal Urbino de la Calle was laid out with no coffin, with 



his final terror petrified on his face, and with the black cape and 
military sword of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. At his side, in 
complete mourning, tremulous, hardly moving, but very much in 
control of herself, Fermina Daza received condolences with no great 
display of feeling until eleven the following morning, when she bade 
farewell to her husband from the portico, waving goodbye with a 
handkerchief. 

It had not been easy for her to regain her self-control after she heard 
Digna Pardo's shriek in the patio and found the old man of her life 
dying in the mud. Her first reaction was one of hope, because his eyes 
were open and shining with a radiant light she had never seen there 
before. She prayed to God to give him at least a moment so that he 
would not go without knowing how much she had loved him despite all 
their doubts, and she felt an irresistible longing to begin life with him 
over again so that they could say what they had left unsaid and do 
everything right that they had done badly in the past. But she had to 
give in to the intransigence of death. Her grief exploded into a blind 
rage against the world, even against herself, and that is what filled her 
with the control and the courage to face her solitude alone. From that 
time on she had no peace, but she was careful about any gesture that 
might seem to betray her grief. The only moment of pathos, although 
it was involuntary, occurred at eleven o'clock Sunday night when they 
brought in the episcopal coffin, still smelling of ship's wax, with its 
copper handles and tufted silk lining. Dr. Urbino Daza ordered it closed 
without delay since the air in the house was already rarefied with the 
heady fragrance of so many flowers in the sweltering heat, and he 
thought he had seen the first purplish shadows on his father's neck. An 
absent-minded voice was heard in the silence: "At that age you're half 



decayed while you're still alive." Before they closed the coffin Fermina 
Daza took off her wedding ring and put it on her dead husband's 
finger, and then she covered his hand with hers, as she always did 
when she caught him digressing in public. 
"We will see each other very soon," she said to him. 
Florentino Ariza, unseen in the crowd of notable personages, felt a 
piercing pain in his side. Fermina Daza had not recognized him in the 
confusion of the first condolences, although no one would be more 
ready to serve or more useful during the night's urgent business. It 
was he who imposed order in the crowded kitchens so that there would 
be enough coffee. He found additional chairs when the neighbors' 
proved insufficient, and he ordered the extra wreaths to be put in the 
patio when there was no more room in the house. He made certain 
there was enough brandy for Dr. Lacides Olivella's guests, who had 
heard the bad news at the height of the silver anniversary celebration 
and had rushed in to continue the party, sitting in a circle under the 
mango tree. He was the only one who knew how to react when the 
fugitive parrot appeared in the dining room at midnight with his head 
high and his wings spread, which caused a stupefied shudder to run 
through the house, for it seemed a sign of repentance. Florentino Ariza 
seized him by the neck before he had time to shout any of his witless 
stock phrases, and he carried him to the stable in a covered cage. He 
did everything this way, with so much discretion and such efficiency 
that it did not even occur to anyone that it might be an intrusion in 
other people's affairs; 

on the contrary, it seemed a priceless service when evil times had 
fallen on the house. 
He was what he seemed: a useful and serious old man. His body was 



bony and erect, his skin dark and clean-shaven, his eyes avid behind 
round spectacles in silver frames, and he wore a romantic, 
old-fashioned mustache with waxed tips. He combed the last tufts of 
hair at his temples upward and plastered them with brilliantine to the 
middle of his shining skull as a solution to total baldness. His natural 
gallantry and languid manner were immediately charming, but they 
were also considered suspect virtues in a confirmed bachelor. He had 
spent a great deal of money, ingenuity, and willpower to disguise the 
seventy-six years he had completed in March, and he was convinced in 
the solitude of his soul that he had loved in silence for a much longer 
time than anyone else in this world ever had. 

The night of Dr. Urbino's death, he was dressed just as he had been 
when he first heard the news, which was how he always dressed, even 
in the infernal heat of J une: a dark suit with a vest, a silk bow tie and 
a celluloid collar, a felt hat, and a shiny black umbrella that he also 
used a walking stick. But when it began to grow light he left the vigil 
for two hours and returned as fresh as the rising sun, carefully shaven 
and fragrant with lotions from his dressing table. He had changed into 
a black frock coat of the kind worn only for funerals and the offices of 
Holy Week, a wing collar with an artist's bow instead of a tie, and a 
bowler hat. He also carried his umbrella, not just out of habit but 
because he was certain that it would rain before noon, and he 
informed Dr. Urbino Daza of this in case the funeral could be held 
earlier. They tried to do so, in fact, because Florentino Ariza belonged 
to a shipping family and was himself President of the River Company 
of the Caribbean, which allowed one to suppose that he knew 
something about predicting the weather. But they could not alter the 
arrangements in time with the civil and military authorities, the public 



and private corporations, the military band, the School of Fine Arts 
orchestra, and the schools and religious fraternities, which were 
prepared for eleven o'clock, so the funeral that had been anticipated 
as a historic event turned into a rout because of a devastating 
downpour. Very few people splashed through the mud to the family 
mausoleum, protected by a colonial ceiba tree whose branches spread 
over the cemetery wall. On the previous afternoon, under those same 
branches but in the section on the other side of the wall reserved for 
suicides, the Caribbean refugees had buried Jeremiah de Saint-Amour 
with his dog beside him, as he had requested. 

Florentino Ariza was one of the few who stayed until the funeral was 
over. He was soaked to the skin and returned home terrified that he 
would catch pneumonia after so many years of meticulous care and 
excessive precautions. He prepared hot lemonade with a shot of 
brandy, drank it in bed with two aspirin tablets, and, wrapped in a 
wool blanket, sweated by the bucketful until the proper equilibrium 
had been reestablished in his body. When he returned to the wake he 
felt his vitality completely restored. Fermina Daza had once again 
assumed command of the house, which was cleaned and ready to 
receive visitors, and on the altar in the library she had placed a 
portrait in pastels of her dead husband, with a black border around the 
frame. By eight o'clock there were as many people and as intense a 
heat as the night before, but after the rosary someone circulated the 
request that everyone leave early so that the widow could rest for the 
first time since Sunday afternoon. 

Fermina Daza said goodbye to most of them at the altar, but she 
accompanied the last group of intimate friends to the street door so 
that she could lock it herself, as she had always done, as she was 



prepared to do with her final breath, when she saw Florentino Ariza, 
dressed in mourning and standing in the middle of the deserted 
drawing room. She was pleased, because for many years she had 
erased him from her life, and this was the first time she saw him 
clearly, purified by forgetfulness. But before she could thank him for 
the visit, he placed his hat over his heart, tremulous and dignified, and 
the abscess that had sustained his life finally burst. 
"Fermina," he said, "I have waited for this opportunity for more than 
half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity 
and everlasting love." 

Fermina Daza would have thought she was facing a madman if she had 
not had reason to believe that at that moment Florentino Ariza was 
inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Her first impulse was to curse 
him for profaning the house when the body of her husband was still 
warm in the grave. But the dignity of her fury held her back. "Get out 
of here," she said. "And don't show your face again for the years of life 
that are left to you." She opened the street door, which she had begun 
to close, and concluded: 
"And I hope there are very few of them." 

When she heard his steps fade away in the deserted street she closed 
the door very slowly with the crossbar and the locks, and faced her 
destiny alone. Until that moment she had never been fully conscious of 
the weight and size of the drama that she had provoked when she was 
not yet eighteen, and that would pursue her until her death. She wept 
for the first time since the afternoon of the disaster, without witnesses, 
which was the only way she wept. She wept for the death of her 
husband, for her solitude and rage, and when she went into the empty 
bedroom she wept for herself because she had rarely slept alone in 



that bed since the loss of her virginity. Everything that belonged to her 
husband made her weep again: his tasseled slippers, his pajamas 
under the pillow, the space of his absence in the dressing table mirror, 
his own odor on her skin. A vague thought made her shudder: "The 
people one loves should take all their things with them when they die." 
She did not want anyone's help to get ready for bed, she did not want 
to eat anything before she went to sleep. Crushed by grief, she prayed 
to God to send her death that night while she slept, and with that hope 
she lay down, barefoot but fully dressed, and fell asleep on the spot. 
She slept without realizing it, but she knew in her sleep that she was 
still alive, and that she had half a bed to spare, that she was lying on 
her left side on the left-hand side of the bed as she always did, but 
that she missed the weight of the other body on the other side. 
Thinking as she slept, she thought that she would never again be able 
to sleep this way, and she began to sob in her sleep, and she slept, 
sobbing, without changing position on her side of the bed, until long 
after the roosters crowed and she was awakened by the despised sun 
of the morning without him. Only then did she realize that she had 
slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while 
she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than 
about her dead husband. 



CHAPTER TWO 

FLORENTINO ARIZA, on the other hand, had not stopped thinking of 
her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of 
hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, 
and four days ago. He did not have to keep a running tally, drawing a 
line for each day on the walls of a cell, because not a day had passed 
that something did not happen to remind him of her. At the time of 
their separation he lived with his mother, Transito Ariza, in one half of 
a rented house on the Street of Windows, where she had kept a 
notions shop ever since she was a young woman, and where she also 
unraveled shirts and old rags to sell as bandages for the men wounded 
in the war. He was her only child, born of an occasional alliance with 
the well-known shipowner Don Pius V Loayza, one of the three brothers 
who had founded the River Company of the Caribbean and thereby 
given new impetus to steam navigation along the Magdalena River. 
Don Pius V Loayza died when his son was ten years old. Although he 
always took care of his expenses in secret, he never recognized him as 
his son before the law, nor did he leave him with his future secure, so 
that Florentino Ariza used only his mother's name even though his true 
parentage was always common knowledge. Florentino Ariza had to 
leave school after his father's death, and he went to work as an 
apprentice in the Postal Agency, where he was in charge of opening 
sacks, sorting the letters, and notifying the public that mail had arrived 
by flying the flag of its country of origin over the office door. 
His good sense attracted the attention of the telegraph operator, the 
German emigre Lotario Thugut, who also played the organ for 
important ceremonies in the Cathedral and gave music lessons in the 



home. Lotario Thugut taught him the Morse code and the workings of 
the telegraph system, and after only a few lessons on the violin 
Florentino Ariza could play by ear like a professional. When he met 
Fermina Daza he was the most sought-after young man in his social 
circle, the one who knew how to dance the latest dances and recite 
sentimental poetry by heart, and who was always willing to play violin 
serenades to his friends' sweethearts. He was very thin, with Indian 
hair plastered down with scented pomade and eyeglasses for myopia, 
which added to his forlorn appearance. Aside from his defective vision, 
he suffered from chronic constipation, which forced him to take 
enemas throughout his life. He had one black suit, inherited from his 
dead father, but Transito Ariza took such good care of it that every 
Sunday it looked new. Despite his air of weakness, his reserve, and his 
somber clothes, the girls in his circle held secret lotteries to determine 
who would spend time with him, and he gambled on spending time 
with them until the day he met Fermina Daza and his innocence came 
to an end. 

He had seen her for the first time one afternoon when Lotario Thugut 
told him to deliver a telegram to someone named Lorenzo Daza, with 
no known place of residence. He found him in one of the oldest houses 
on the Park of the Evangels; it was half in ruins, and its interior patio, 
with weeds in the flowerpots and a stone fountain with no water, 
resembled an abbey cloister. Florentino Ariza heard no human sound 
as he followed the barefoot maid under the arches of the passageway, 
where unopened moving cartons and bricklayer's tools lay among 
leftover lime and stacks of cement bags, for the house was undergoing 
drastic renovation. At the far end of the patio was a temporary office 
where a very fat man, whose curly sideburns grew into his mustache, 



sat behind a desk, taking his siesta. In fact his name was Lorenzo 
Daza, and he was not very well known in the city because he had 
arrived less than two years before and was not a man with many 
friends. 

He received the telegram as if it were the continuation of an ominous 
dream. Florentino Ariza observed his livid eyes with a kind of official 
compassion, he observed his uncertain fingers trying to break the seal, 
the heartfelt fear that he had seen so many times in so many 
addressees who still could not think about telegrams without 
connecting them with death. After reading it he regained his 
composure. He sighed: "Good news." And he handed Florentino Ariza 
the obligatory five reales, letting him know with a relieved smile that 
he would not have given them to him if the news had been bad. Then 
he said goodbye with a handshake, which was not the usual thing to do 
with a telegraph messenger, and the maid accompanied him to the 
street door, more to keep an eye on him than to lead the way. They 
retraced their steps along the arcaded passageway, but this time 
Florentino Ariza knew that there was someone else in the house, 
because the brightness in the patio was filled with the voice of a 
woman repeating a reading lesson. As he passed the sewing room, he 
saw through the window an older woman and a young girl sitting very 
close together on two chairs and following the reading in the book that 
the woman held open on her lap. It seemed a strange sight: the 
daughter teaching the mother to read. His interpretation was incorrect 
only in part, because the woman was the aunt, not the mother of the 
child, although she had raised her as if she were her own. The lesson 
was not interrupted, but the girl raised her eyes to see who was 
passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a 



cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later. 
All that Florentino Ariza could learn about Lorenzo Daza was that he 
had come from San J uan de la Cienaga with his only daughter and his 
unmarried sister soon after the cholera epidemic, and those who saw 
him disembark had no doubt that he had come to stay since he 
brought everything necessary for a well-furnished house. His wife had 
died when the girl was very young. His sister, named Escolastica, was 
forty years old, and she was fulfilling a vow to wear the habit of St. 
Francis when she went out on the street and the penitent's rope around 
her waist when she was at home. The girl was thirteen years old and 
had the same name as her dead mother: Fermina. 
It was supposed that Lorenzo Daza was a man of means, because he 
lived well with no known employment and had paid hard cash for the 
Park of the Evangels house, whose restoration must have cost him at 
least twice the purchase price of two hundred gold pesos. His daughter 
was studying at the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, 
where for two centuries young ladies of society had learned the art and 
technique of being diligent and submissive wives. During the colonial 
period and the early years of the Republic, the school had accepted 
only those students with great family names. But the old families, 
ruined by I ndependence, had to submit to the realities of a new time, 
and the Academy opened its doors to all applicants who could pay the 
tuition, regardless of the color of their blood, on the essential condition 
that they were legitimate daughters of Catholic marriages. I n any 
event, it was an expensive school, and the fact that Fermina Daza 
studied there was sufficient indication of her family's economic 
situation, if not of its social position. This news encouraged Florentino 
Ariza, since it indicated to him that the beautiful adolescent with the 



almond-shaped eyes was within reach of his dreams. But her father's 
strict regime soon provided an irremediable difficulty. Unlike the other 
students, who walked to school in groups or accompanied by an older 
servant, Fermina Daza always walked with her spinster aunt, and her 
behavior indicated that she was permitted no distraction. 
It was in this innocent way that Florentino Ariza began his secret life as 
a solitary hunter. From seven o'clock in the morning, he sat on the 
most hidden bench in the little park, pretending to read a book of 
verse in the shade of the almond trees, until he saw the impossible 
maiden walk by in her blue-striped uniform, stockings that reached to 
her knees, masculine laced oxfords, and a single thick braid with a 
bow at the end, which hung down her back to her waist. She walked 
with natural haughtiness, her head high, her eyes unmoving, her step 
rapid, her nose pointing straight ahead, her bag of books held against 
her chest with crossed arms, her doe's gait making her seem immune 
to gravity. At her side, struggling to keep up with her, the aunt with 
the brown habit and rope of St. Francis did not allow him the slightest 
opportunity to approach. Florentino Ariza saw them pass back and forth 
four times a day and once on Sundays when they came out of High 
Mass, and just seeing the girl was enough for him. Little by little he 
idealized her, endowing her with improbable virtues and imaginary 
sentiments, and after two weeks he thought of nothing else but her. So 
he decided to send Fermina Daza a simple note written on both sides 
of the paper in his exquisite notary's hand. But he kept it in his pocket 
for several days, thinking about how to hand it to her, and while he 
thought he wrote several more pages before going to bed, so that the 
original letter was turning into a dictionary of compliments, inspired by 
books he had learned by heart because he read them so often during 



his vigils in the park. 

Searching for a way to give her the letter, he tried to make the 
acquaintance of some of the other students at Presentation Academy, 
but they were too distant from his world. Besides, after much thought, 
it did not seem prudent to let anyone else know of his intentions. Still, 
he managed to find out that Fermina Daza had been invited to a 
Saturday dance a few days after their arrival in the city, and her father 
had not allowed her to go, with a conclusive: "Everything in due 
course." By the time the letter contained more than sixty pages written 
on both sides, Florentino Ariza could no longer endure the weight of his 
secret, and he unburdened himself to his mother, the only person with 
whom he allowed himself any confidences. Transito Ariza was moved 
to tears by her son's innocence in matters of love, and she tried to 
guide him with her own knowledge. She began by convincing him not 
to deliver the lyrical sheaf of papers, since it would only frighten the 
girl of his dreams, who she supposed was as green as he in matters of 
the heart. The first step, she said, was to make her aware of his 
interest so that his declaration would not take her so much by surprise 
and she would have time to think. 

"But above all," she said, "the first person you have to win over is not 
the girl but her aunt." 

Both pieces of advice were wise, no doubt, but they came too late. I n 
reality, on the day when Fermina Daza let her mind wander for an 
instant from the reading lesson she was giving her aunt and raised her 
eyes to see who was walking along the passageway, Florentino Ariza 
had impressed her because of his air of vulnerability. That night, 
during supper, her father had mentioned the telegram, which was how 
she found out why Florentino Ariza had come to the house and what he 



did for a living. This information increased her interest, because for 
her, as for so many other people at that time, the invention of the 
telegraph had something magical about it. So that she recognized 
Florentino Ariza the first time she saw him reading under the trees in 
the little park, although it in no way disquieted her until her aunt told 
her he had been there for several weeks. Then, when they also saw 
him on Sundays as they came out of Mass, her aunt was convinced that 
all these meetings could not be casual. She said: "He is not going to all 
this trouble for me." For despite her austere conduct and penitential 
habit, Aunt Escolastica had an instinct for life and a vocation for 
complicity, which were her greatest virtues, and the mere idea that a 
man was interested in her niece awakened an irresistible emotion in 
her. Fermina Daza, however, was still safe from even simple curiosity 
about love, and the only feeling that Florentino Ariza inspired in her 
was a certain pity, because it seemed to her that he was sick. But her 
aunt told her that one had to live a long time to know a man's true 
nature, and she was convinced that the one who sat in the park to 
watch them walk by could only be sick with love. 
Aunt Escolastica was a refuge of understanding and affection for the 
only child of a loveless marriage. She had raised her since the death 
of her mother, and in her relations with Lorenzo Daza she behaved 
more like an accomplice than an aunt. So that the appearance of 
Florentino Ariza was for them another of the many intimate diversions 
they invented to pass the time. Four times a day, when they walked 
through the little Park of the Evangels, both hurried to look with a 
rapid glance at the thin, timid, unimpressive sentinel who was almost 
always dressed in black despite the heat and who pretended to read 
under the trees. "There he is," said the one who saw him first, 



suppressing her laughter, before he raised his eyes and saw the two 
rigid, aloof women of his life as they crossed the park without looking 
at him. 

"Poor thing," her aunt had said. "He does not dare approach you 
because I am with you, but one day he will if his intentions are 
serious, and then he will give you a letter." 

Foreseeing all kinds of adversities, she taught her to communicate in 
sign language, an indispensable strategy in forbidden love. These 
unexpected, almost childish antics caused an unfamiliar curiosity in 
Fermina Daza, but for several months it did not occur to her that it 
could go any further. She never knew when the diversion became a 
preoccupation and her blood frothed with the need to see him, and one 
night she awoke in terror because she saw him looking at her from the 
darkness at the foot of her bed. Then she longed with all her soul for 
her aunt's predictions to come true, and in her prayers she begged God 
to give him the courage to hand her the letter just so she could know 
what it said. 

But her prayers were not answered. On the contrary. This occurred at 
the time that Florentino Ariza made his confession to his mother, who 
dissuaded him from handing Fermina Daza his seventy pages of 
compliments, so that she continued to wait for the rest of the year. Her 
preoccupation turned into despair as the December vacation 
approached, and she asked herself over and over again how she would 
see him and let him see her during the three months when she would 
not be walking to school. Her doubts were still unresolved on 
Christmas Eve, when she was shaken by the presentiment that he was 
in the crowd at Midnight Mass, looking at her, and this uneasiness 
flooded her heart. She did not dare to turn her head, because she was 



sitting between her father and her aunt, and she had to control herself 
so that they would not notice her agitation. But in the crowd leaving 
the church she felt him so close, so clearly, that an irresistible power 
forced her to look over her shoulder as she walked along the central 
nave and then, a hand's breadth from her eyes, she saw those icy 
eyes, that livid face, those lips petrified by the terror of love. 
Dismayed by her own audacity, she seized Aunt Escolastica's arm so 
she would not fall, and her aunt felt the icy perspiration on her hand 
through the lace mitt, and she comforted her with an imperceptible 
sign of unconditional complicity. I n the din of fireworks and native 
drums, of colored lights in the doorways and the clamor of the crowd 
yearning for peace, Florentino Ariza wandered like a sleepwalker until 
dawn, watching the fiesta through his tears, dazed by the hallucination 
that it was he and not God who had been born that night. 
His delirium increased the following week, when he passed Fermina 
Daza's house in despair at the siesta hour and saw that she and her 
aunt were sitting under the almond trees at the doorway. It was an 
open-air repetition of the scene he had witnessed the first afternoon in 
the sewing room: the girl giving a reading lesson to her aunt. But 
Fermina Daza seemed different without the school uniform, for she 
wore a narrow tunic with many folds that fell from her shoulders in the 
Greek style, and on her head she wore a garland of fresh gardenias 
that made her look like a crowned goddess. Florentino Ariza sat in the 
park where he was sure he would be seen, and then he did not have 
recourse to his feigned reading but sat with the book open and his 
eyes fixed on the illusory maiden, who did not even respond with a 
charitable glance. 
At first he thought that the lesson under the almond trees was a casual 



innovation due, perhaps, to the interminable repairs on the house, but 

in the days that followed he came to understand that Fermina Daza 

would be there, within view, every afternoon at the same time during 

the three months of vacation, and that certainty filled him with new 

hope. He did not have the impression that he was seen, he could not 

detect any sign of interest or rejection, but in her indifference there 

was a distinct radiance that encouraged him to persevere. Then, one 

afternoon toward the end of January, the aunt put her work on the 

chair and left her niece alone in the doorway under the shower of 

yellow leaves falling from the almond trees. Encouraged by the 

impetuous thought that this was an arranged opportunity, Florentino 

Ariza crossed the street and stopped in front of Fermina Daza, so close 

to her that he could detect the catches in her breathing and the floral 

scent that he would identify with her for the rest of his life. He spoke 

with his head high and with a determination that would be his again 

only half a century later, and for the same reason. "All I ask is that 

you accept a letter from me," he said. 

It was not the voice that Fermina Daza had expected from him: it was 
sharp and clear, with a control that had nothing to do with his languid 
manner. Without lifting her eyes from her embroidery, she replied: "I 
cannot accept it without my father's permission." Florentino Ariza 
shuddered at the warmth of that voice, whose hushed tones he was not 
to forget for the rest of his life. But he held himself steady and replied 
without hesitation: "Get it." Then he sweetened the command with a 
plea: "It is a matter of life and death." Fermina Daza did not look at 
him, she did not interrupt her embroidering, but her decision opened 
the door a crack, wide enough for the entire world to pass through. 
"Come back every afternoon," she said to him, "and wait until I change 
my seat." Florentino Ariza did not understand what she meant until the 
following Monday when, from the bench in the little park, he saw the 



same scene with one variation: when Aunt Escolastica went into the 
house, Fermina Daza stood up and then sat in the other chair. 
Florentino Ariza, with a white camellia in his lapel, crossed the street 
and stood in front of her. He said: "This is the greatest moment of my 
life." Fermina Daza did not raise her 
eyes to him, but she looked all around her and saw the deserted 

streets in the heat of the dry season and a swirl of dead leaves pulled 

along by the wind. 

"Give it to me," she said. 

Florentino Ariza had intended to give her the seventy sheets he could 

recite from memory after reading them so often, but then he decided 

on a sober and explicit half page in which he promised only what was 

essential: his perfect fidelity and his everlasting love. He took the 

letter out of his inside jacket pocket and held it before the eyes of the 

troubled embroiderer, who had still not dared to look at him. She saw 

the blue envelope trembling in a hand petrified with terror, and she 

raised the embroidery frame so he could put the letter on it, for she 

could not admit that she had noticed the trembling of his fingers. Then 

it happened: a bird shook himself among the leaves of the almond 

trees, and his droppings fell right on the embroidery. Fermina Daza 

moved the frame out of the way, hid it behind the chair so that he 

would not notice what had happened, and looked at him for the first 

time, her face aflame. Florentino Ariza was impassive as he held the 

letter in his hand and said: "It's good luck." She thanked him with her 

first smile and almost snatched the letter away from him, folded it, 

and hid it in her bodice. Then he offered her the camellia he wore in 

his lapel. She refused: "It is a flower of promises." Then, conscious 

that their time was almost over, she again took refuge in her 

composure. "Now go," she said, "and don't come back until I tell you 



to." 

After Florentino Ariza saw her for the first time, his mother knew 
before he told her because he lost his voice and his appetite and spent 
the entire night tossing and turning in his bed. But when he began to 
wait for the answer to his first letter, his anguish was complicated by 
diarrhea and green vomit, he became disoriented and suffered from 
sudden fainting spells, and his mother was terrified because his 
condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the 
devastation of cholera. Florentino Ariza's godfather, an old 
homeopathic practitioner who had been Transito Ariza's confidant ever 
since her days as a secret mistress, was also alarmed at first by the 
patient's condition, because he had the weak pulse, the hoarse 
breathing, and the pale perspiration of a dying man. But his 
examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and 
that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was 
needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his 
mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the 
same as those of cholera. He prescribed infusions of linden blossoms to 
calm the nerves and suggested a change of air so he could find 
consolation in distance, but Florentino Ariza longed for just the 
opposite: to enjoy his martyrdom. 

Transito Ariza was a freed quadroon whose instinct for happiness had 
been frustrated by poverty, and she took pleasure in her son's 
suffering as if it were her own. She made him drink the infusions when 
he became delirious, and she smothered him in wool blankets to keep 
away the chills, but at the same time she encouraged him to enjoy his 
prostration. 
"Take advantage of it now, while you are young, and suffer all you 



can," she said to him, "because these things don't last your whole life." 
In the Postal Agency, of course, they did not agree. Florentino Ariza 
had become negligent, and he was so distracted that he confused the 
flags that announced the arrival of the mail, and one Wednesday he 
hoisted the German flag when the ship was from the Leyland Company 
and carried the mail from Liverpool, and on another day he flew the 
flag of the United States when the ship was from the Compagnie 
Generale Transatlantique and carried the mail from Saint-Nazaire. 
These confusions of love caused such chaos in the distribution of the 
mail and provoked so many protests from the public that if Florentino 
Ariza did not lose his job it was because Lotario Thugut kept him at the 
telegraph and took him to play the violin in the Cathedral choir. They 
had a friendship difficult to understand because of the difference in 
their ages, for they might have been grandfather and grandson, but 
they got along at work as well as they did in the taverns around the 
port, which were frequented by everyone out for the evening 
regardless of social class, from drunken beggars to young gentlemen 
in tuxedos who fled the gala parties at the Social Club to eat fried 
mullet and coconut rice. Lotario Thugut was in the habit of going there 
after the last shift at the telegraph office, and dawn often found him 
drinking J amaican punch and playing the accordion with the crews of 
madmen from the Antillean schooners. He was corpulent and 
bull-necked, with a golden beard and a liberty cap that he wore when 
he went out at night, and all he needed was a string of bells to look 
like St. Nicholas. At least once a week he ended the evening with a 
little night bird, as he called them, one of the many who sold 
emergency love in a transient hotel for sailors. When he met 
Florentino Ariza, the first thing he did, with a certain magisterial 



delight, was to initiate him into the secrets of his paradise. He chose 
for him the little birds he thought best, he discussed their price and 
style with them and offered to pay in advance with his own money for 
their services. But Florentino Ariza did not accept: he was a virgin, and 
he had decided not to lose his virginity unless it was for love. 
The hotel was a colonial palace that had seen better days, and its 
great marble salons and rooms were divided into plasterboard cubicles 
with peepholes, which were rented out as much for watching as for 
doing. There was talk of busybodies who had their eyes poked out with 
knitting needles, of a man who recognized his own wife as the woman 
he was spying on, of well-bred gentlemen who came disguised as tarts 
to forget who they were with the boatswains on shore leave, and of so 
many other misadventures of observers and observed that the mere 
idea of going into the next room terrified Florentino Ariza. And so 
Lotario Thugut could never persuade him that watching and letting 
himself be watched were the refinements of European princes. 
As opposed to what his corpulence might suggest, Lotario Thugut had 
the rosebud genitals of a cherub, but this must have been a fortunate 
defect, because the most tarnished birds argued over who would have 
the chance to go to bed with him, and then they shrieked as if their 
throats were being cut, shaking the buttresses of the palace and 
making its ghosts tremble in fear. They said he used an ointment 
made of snake venom that inflamed women's loins, but he swore he 
had no resources other than those that God had given him. He would 
say with uproarious laughter: "It's pure love." Many years had to pass 
before Florentino Ariza would understand that perhaps he was right. He 
was convinced at last, at a more advanced stage of his sentimental 
education, when he met a man who lived like a king by exploiting 



three women at the same time. The three of them rendered their 
accounts at dawn, prostrate at his feet to beg forgiveness for their 
meager profits, and the only gratification they sought was that he go 
to bed with the one who brought him the most money. Florentino Ariza 
thought that terror alone could induce such indignities, but one of the 
three girls surprised him with the contradictory truth. "These are 
things," she said, "you do only for love." 

It was not so much for his talents as a fornicator as for his personal 
charm that Lotario Thugut had become one of the most esteemed 
clients of the hotel. Florentino Ariza, because he was so quiet and 
elusive, also earned the esteem of the owner, and during the most 
arduous period of his grief he would lock himself in the suffocating 
little rooms to read verses and tearful serialized love stories, and his 
reveries left nests of dark swallows on the balconies and the sound of 
kisses and the beating of wings in the stillness of siesta. At dusk, when 
it was cooler, it was impossible not to listen to the conversations of 
men who came to console themselves at the end of their day with 
hurried love. So that Florentino Ariza heard about many acts of 
disloyalty, and even some state secrets, which important clients and 
even local officials confided to their ephemeral lovers, not caring if 
they could be overheard in the adjoining rooms. This was also how he 
learned that four nautical leagues to the north of the Sotavento 
Archipelago, a Spanish galleon had been lying under water since the 
eighteenth century with its cargo of more than five hundred billion 
pesos in pure gold and precious stones. The story astounded him, but 
he did not think of it again until a few months later, when his love 
awakened in him an overwhelming desire to salvage the sunken 
treasure so that Fermina Daza could bathe in showers of gold. 



Years later, when he tried to remember what the maiden idealized by 
the alchemy of poetry really was like, he could not distinguish her 
from the heartrending twilights of those times. Even when he observed 
her, unseen, during those days of longing when he waited for a reply 
to his first letter, he saw her transfigured in the afternoon shimmer of 
two o'clock in a shower of blossoms from the almond trees where it 
was always April regardless of the season of the year. The only reason 
he was interested in accompanying Lotario Thugut on his violin from 
the privileged vantage point in the choir was to see how her tunic 
fluttered in the breeze raised by the canticles. But his own delirium 
finally interfered with that pleasure, for the mystic music seemed so 
innocuous compared with the state of his soul that he attempted to 
make it more exciting with love waltzes, and Lotario Thugut found 
himself obliged to ask that he leave the choir. This was the time when 
he gave in to his desire to eat the gardenias that Transito Ariza grew in 
pots in the patio, so that he could know the taste of Fermina Daza. It 
was also the time when he happened to find in one of his mother's 
trunks a liter bottle of the cologne that the sailors from the 
Hamburg-American Line sold as contraband, and he could not resist the 
temptation to sample it in order to discover other tastes of his 
beloved. He continued to drink from the bottle until dawn, and he 
became drunk on Fermina Daza in abrasive swallows, first in the 
taverns around the port and then as he stared out to sea from the 
jetties where lovers without a roof over their heads made consoling 
love, until at last he succumbed to unconsciousness. Transito Ariza, 
who had waited for him until six o'clock in the morning with her heart 
in her mouth, searched for him in the most improbable hiding places, 
and a short while after noon she found him wallowing in a pool of 



fragrant vomit in a cove of the bay where drowning victims washed 
ashore. 

She took advantage of the hiatus of his convalescence to reproach him 
for his passivity as he waited for the answer to his letter. She 
reminded him that the weak would never enter the kingdom of love, 
which is a harsh and ungenerous kingdom, and that women give 
themselves only to men of resolute spirit, who provide the security 
they need in order to face life. Florentino Ariza learned the lesson, 
perhaps too well. Transito Ariza could not hide a feeling of pride, more 
carnal than maternal, when she saw him leave the notions shop in his 
black suit and stiff felt hat, his lyrical bow tie and celluloid collar, and 
she asked him as a joke if he was going to a funeral. He answered, his 
ears flaming: "It's almost the same thing." She realized that he could 
hardly breathe with fear, but his determination was invincible. She 
gave him her final warnings and her blessing, and laughing for all she 
was worth, she promised him another bottle of cologne so they could 
celebrate his victory together. 

He had given Fermina Daza the letter a month before, and since then 
he had often broken his promise not to return to the little park, but he 
had been very careful not to be seen. Nothing had changed. The 
reading lesson under the trees ended at about two o'clock, when the 
city was waking from its siesta, and Fermina Daza embroidered with 
her aunt until the day began to cool. Florentino Ariza did not wait for 
the aunt to go into the house, and he crossed the street with a martial 
stride that allowed him to overcome the weakness in his knees, but he 
spoke to her aunt, not to Fermina Daza. 

"Please be so kind as to leave me alone for a moment with the young 
lady," he said. "I have something important to tell her." 



"What impertinence!" her aunt said to him. "There is nothing that has 

to do with her that I cannot hear." 

"Then I will not say anything to her," he said, "but I warn you that you 

will be responsible for the consequences." 

That was not the manner Escolastica Daza expected from the ideal 

sweetheart, but she stood up in alarm because for the first time she 

had the overwhelming impression that Florentino Ariza was speaking 

under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So she went into the house to 

change needles and left the two young people alone under the almond 

trees in the doorway. 

I n reality, Fermina Daza knew very little about this taciturn suitor who 

had appeared in her life like a winter swallow and whose name she 

would not even have known if it had not been for his signature on the 

letter. She had learned that he was the fatherless son of an unmarried 

woman who was hardworking and serious but forever marked by the 

fiery stigma of her single youthful mistake. She had learned that he 

was not a messenger, as she had supposed, but a well-qualified 

assistant with a promising future, and she thought that he had 

delivered the telegram to her father only as a pretext for seeing her. 

This idea moved her. She also knew that he was one of the musicians 

in the choir, and although she never dared raise her eyes to look at 

him during Mass, she had the revelation one Sunday that while the 

other instruments played for everyone, the violin played for her alone. 

He was not the kind of man she would have chosen. His foundling's 

eyeglasses, his clerical garb, his mysterious resources had awakened 

in her a curiosity that was difficult to resist, but she had never 

imagined that curiosity was one of the many masks of love. 

She herself could not explain why she had accepted the letter. She did 



not reproach herself for doing so, but the ever-increasing pressure to 
respond complicated her life. Her father's every word, his casual 
glances, his most trivial gestures, seemed set with traps to uncover her 
secret. Her state of alarm was such that she avoided speaking at the 
table for fear some slip might betray her, and she became evasive 
even with her Aunt Escolastica, who nonetheless shared her repressed 
anxiety as if it were her own. She would lock herself in the bathroom 
at odd hours and for no reason other than to reread the letter, 
attempting to discover a secret code, a magic formula hidden in one of 
the three hundred fourteen letters of its fifty-eight words, in the hope 
they would tell her more than they said. But all she found was what 
she had understood on first reading, when she ran to lock herself in 
the bathroom, her heart in a frenzy, and tore open the envelope 
hoping for a long, feverish letter, and found only a perfumed note 
whose determination frightened her. 

At first she had not even thought seriously that she was obliged to 
respond, but the letter was so explicit that there was no way to avoid 
it. Meanwhile, in the torment of her doubts, she was surprised to find 
herself thinking about Florentino Ariza with more frequency and 
interest than she cared to allow, and she even asked herself in great 
distress why he was not in the little park at the usual hour, forgetting 
that it was she who had asked him not to return while she was 
preparing her reply. And so she thought about him as she never could 
have imagined thinking about anyone, having premonitions that he 
would be where he was not, wanting him to be where he could not be, 
awaking with a start, with the physical sensation that he was looking at 
her in the darkness while she slept, so that on the afternoon when she 
heard his resolute steps on the yellow leaves in the little park it was 



difficult for her not to think this was yet another trick of her 
imagination. But when he demanded her answer with an authority that 
was so different from his languor, she managed to overcome her fear 
and tried to dodge the issue with the truth: she did not know how to 
answer him. But Florentino Ariza had not leapt across an abyss only to 
be shooed away with such excuses. 

"If you accepted the letter," he said to her, "it shows a lack of courtesy 
not to answer it." 

That was the end of the labyrinth. Fermina Daza regained her 
self-control, begged his pardon for the delay, and gave him her 
solemn word that he would have an answer before the end of the 
vacation. And he did. On the last Friday in February, three days before 
school reopened, Aunt Escolastica went to the telegraph office to ask 
how much it cost to send a telegram to Piedras de Moler, a village that 
did not even appear on the list of places served by the telegraph, and 
she allowed Florentino Ariza to attend her as if she had never seen him 
before, but when she left she pretended to forget a breviary covered in 
lizard skin, leaving it on the counter, and in it there was an envelope 
made of linen paper with golden vignettes. Delirious with joy, 
Florentino Ariza spent the rest of the afternoon eating roses and 
reading the note letter by letter, over and over again, and the more he 
read the more roses he ate, and by midnight he had read it so many 
times and had eaten so many roses that his mother had to hold his 
head as if he were a calf and force him to swallow a dose of castor oil. 
It was the year they fell into devastating love. Neither one could do 
anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and 
wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered 
them. Never in that delirious spring, or in the following year, did they 



have the opportunity to speak to each other. Moreover, from the 
moment they saw each other for the first time until he reiterated his 
determination a half century later, they never had the opportunity to 
be alone or to talk of their love. But during the first three months not 
one day went by that they did not write to each other, and for a time 
they wrote twice a day, until Aunt Escolastica became frightened by 
the intensity of the blaze that she herself had helped to ignite. 
After the first letter that she carried to the telegraph office with an 
ember of revenge against her own destiny, she had allowed an almost 
daily exchange of messages in what appeared to be casual encounters 
on the street, but she did not have the courage to permit a 
conversation, no matter how banal and fleeting it might be. Still, after 
three months she realized that her niece was not the victim of a girlish 
fancy, as it had seemed at first, and that her own life was threatened 
by the fire of love. The truth was that Escolastica Daza had no other 
means of support except her brother's charity, and she knew that his 
tyrannical nature would never forgive such a betrayal of his 
confidence. But when it was time for the final decision, she did not 
have the heart to cause her niece the same irreparable grief that she 
had been obliged to nurture ever since her youth, and she permitted 
her to use a strategy that allowed her the illusion of innocence. The 
method was simple: Fermina Daza would leave her letter in some 
hiding place along her daily route from the house to the Academy, and 
in that letter she would indicate to Florentino Ariza where she expected 
to find his answer. Florentino Ariza did the same. I n this way, for the 
rest of the year, the conflicts in Aunt Escolastica's conscience were 
transferred to baptisteries in churches, holes in trees, and crannies in 
ruined colonial fortresses. Sometimes their letters were soaked by 



rain, soiled by mud, torn by adversity, and some were lost for a 
variety of other reasons, but they always found a way to be in touch 
with each other again. 

Florentino Ariza wrote every night. Letter by letter, he had no mercy 
as he poisoned himself with the smoke from the palm oil lamps in the 
back room of the notions shop, and his letters became more discursive 
and more lunatic the more he tried to imitate his favorite poets from 
the Popular Library, which even at that time was approaching eighty 
volumes. His mother, who had urged him with so much fervor to enjoy 
his torment, became concerned for his health. "You are going to wear 
out your brains," she shouted at him from the bedroom when she 
heard the first roosters crow. "No woman is worth all that." She could 
not remember ever having known anyone in such a state of unbridled 
passion. But he paid no attention to her. Sometimes he went to the 
office without having slept, his hair in an uproar of love after leaving 
the letter in the prearranged hiding place so that Fermina Daza would 
find it on her way to school. She, on the other hand, under the 
watchful eye of her father and the vicious spying of the nuns, could 
barely manage to fill half a page from her notebook when she locked 
herself in the bathroom or pretended to take notes in class. But this 
was not only due to her limited time and the danger of being taken by 
surprise, it was also her nature that caused her letters to avoid 
emotional pitfalls and confine themselves to relating the events of her 
daily life in the utilitarian style of a ship's log. In reality they were 
distracted letters, intended to keep the coals alive without putting her 
hand in the fire, while Florentino Ariza burned himself alive in every 
line. Desperate to infect her with his own madness, he sent her 
miniaturist's verses inscribed with the point of a pin on camellia petals. 



It was he, not she, who had the audacity to enclose a lock of his hair in 
one letter, but he never received the response he longed for, which 
was an entire strand of Fermina Daza's braid. He did move her at last 
to take one step further, and from that time on she began to send him 
the veins of leaves dried in dictionaries, the wings of butterflies, the 
feathers of magic birds, and for his birthday she gave him a square 
centimeter of St. Peter Clavier's habit, which in those days was being 
sold in secret at a price far beyond the reach of a schoolgirl her age. 
One night, without any warning, Fermina Daza awoke with a start: a 
solo violin was serenading her, playing the same waltz over and over 
again. She shuddered when she realized that each note was an act of 
thanksgiving for the petals from her herbarium, for the moments 
stolen from arithmetic to write her letters, for her fear of examinations 
when she was thinking more about him than about the natural 
sciences, but she did not dare believe that Florentino Ariza was capable 
of such imprudence. 

The next morning at breakfast Lorenzo Daza could not contain his 
curiosity--first because he did not know what playing a single piece 
meant in the language of serenades, and second because, despite the 
attention with which he had listened, he could not determine which 
house it had been intended for. Aunt Escolastica, with a sangfroid that 
took her niece's breath away, stated that she had seen through the 
bedroom curtains that the solitary violinist was standing on the other 
side of the park, and she said that in any event a single piece was 
notification of severed relations. In that day's letter Florentino Ariza 
confirmed that he had played the serenade, that he had composed the 
waltz, and that it bore the name he called Fermina Daza in his heart: 
"The Crowned Goddess." He did not play it in the park again, but on 



moonlit nights in places chosen so that she could listen without fear in 
her bedroom. One of his favored spots was the paupers' cemetery, 
exposed to the sun and the rain on an indigent hill, where turkey 
buzzards dozed and the music achieved a supernatural resonance. 
Later he learned to recognize the direction of the winds, and in this 
way he was certain that his melody carried as far as it had to. 
I n August of that year a new civil war, one of the many that had been 
devastating the country for over half a century, threatened to spread, 
and the government imposed martial law and a six o'clock curfew in 
the provinces along the Caribbean coast. Although some disturbances 
had already occurred, and the troops had committed all kinds of 
retaliatory abuses, Florentino Ariza was so befuddled that he was 
unaware of the state of the world, and a military patrol surprised him 
one dawn as he disturbed the chastity of the dead with his amorous 
provocations. By some miracle he escaped summary execution after 
he was accused of being a spy who sent messages in the key of G to 
the Liberal ships marauding in nearby waters. 

"What the hell do you mean, a spy?" said Florentino Ariza. "I'm nothing 
but a poor lover." 

For three nights he slept with irons around his ankles in the cells of the 
local garrison. But when he was released he felt defrauded by the 
brevity of his captivity, and even in the days of his old age, when so 
many other wars were confused in his memory, he still thought he was 
the only man in the city, and perhaps the country, who had dragged 
fivepound leg irons for the sake of love. 
Their frenetic correspondence was almost two years old when 
Florentino Ariza, in a letter of only one paragraph, made a formal 
proposal of marriage to Fermina Daza. On several occasions during the 



preceding six months he had sent her a white camellia, but she would 
return it to him in her next letter so that he would have no doubt that 
she was disposed to continue writing to him, but without the 
seriousness of an engagement. The truth is that she had always taken 
the comings and goings of the camellia as a lovers' game, and it had 
never occurred to her to consider it as a crossroads in her destiny. But 
when the formal proposal arrived she felt herself wounded for the first 
time by the clawings of death. Panic-stricken, she told her Aunt 
Escolastica, who gave her advice with the courage and lucidity she had 
not had when she was twenty and was forced to decide her own fate. 
"Tell him yes," she said. "Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are 
sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of 
your life if you say no." 

Fermina Daza, however, was so confused that she asked for some time 
to think it over. First she asked for a month, then two, then three, and 
when the fourth month had ended and she had still not replied, she 
received a white camellia again, not alone in the 
envelope as on other occasions but with the peremptory notification 
that this was the last one: it was now or never. Then that same 
afternoon it was Florentino Ariza who saw the face of death when he 
received an envelope containing a strip of paper, torn from the margin 
of a school notebook, on which a one-line answer was written in pencil: 
Very well, I will marry you ifyou promise not to make me eat 
eggplant. 

Florentino Ariza was not prepared for that answer, but his mother was. 
Since he had first spoken to her six months earlier about his intention 
to marry, Transito Ariza had begun negotiations for renting the entire 
house which, until that time, she had shared with two other families. A 



two-story structure dating from the seventeenth century, it was the 
building where the tobacco monopoly had been located under Spanish 
rule, and its ruined owners had been obliged to rent it out in bits and 
pieces because they did not have the money to maintain it. It had one 
section facing the street, where the retail tobacco shop had been, 
another section at the rear of a paved patio, where the factory had 
been located, and a very large stable that the current tenants used in 
common for washing and drying their clothes. Transito Ariza occupied 
the first section, which was the most convenient and the best 
preserved, although it was also the smallest. The notions store was in 
the old tobacco shop, with a large door facing the street, and to one 
side was the former storeroom, with only a skylight for ventilation, 
where Transito Ariza slept. The stockroom took up half the space that 
was divided by a wooden partition. In it were a table and four chairs, 
used for both eating and writing, and it was there that Florentino Ariza 
hung his hammock when dawn did not find him writing. It was a good 
space for the two of them, but too small for a third person, least of all 
a young lady from the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed 
Virgin whose father had restored a house in ruins until it was like new, 
while the families with seven titles went to bed with the fear that the 
roofs of their mansions would cave in on them while they slept. So 
Transito Ariza had arranged with the owner to let her also occupy the 
gallery in the patio, and in exchange she would keep the house in 
good condition for five years. 

She had the resources to do so. In addition to the cash income from 
the notions store and the hemostatic rags, which sufficed for her 
modest life, she had multiplied her savings by lending them to a 
clientele made up of the embarrassed new poor, who accepted her 



excessive interest rates for the sake of her discretion. Ladies with the 
airs of queens descended from their carriages at the entrance to the 
notions shop, unencumbered by nursemaids or servants, and as they 
pretended to buy Holland laces and passementerie trimmings, they 
pawned, between sobs, the last glittering ornaments of their lost 
paradise. Transito Ariza rescued them from difficulties with so much 
consideration for their lineage that many of them left more grateful for 
the honor than for the favor they had received. I n less than ten years 
she knew the jewels, so often redeemed and then tearfully pawned 
again, as if they had been her own, and at the time her son decided to 
marry, the profits, converted into gold, lay hidden in a clay jar under 
her bed. Then she did her accounts and discovered not only that she 
could undertake to keep the rented house standing for five years, but 
that with the same shrewdness and a little more luck she could 
perhaps buy it, before she died, for the twelve grandchildren she 
hoped to have. Florentino Ariza, for his part, had received provisional 
appointment as First Assistant at the telegraph office, and Lotario 
Thugut wanted him to head the office when he left to direct the School 
of Telegraphy and Magnetism, which he expected to do the following 
year. 

So the practical side of the marriage was resolved. Still, Transito Ariza 
thought that two final conditions were prudent. The first was to find out 
who Lorenzo Daza really was, for though his accent left no doubt 
concerning his origins, no one had any certain information as to his 
identity and livelihood. The second was that the engagement be a long 
one so that the fiances could come to know each other person to 
person, and that the strictest reserve be maintained until both felt very 
certain of their affections. She suggested they wait until the war was 



over. Florentine) Ariza agreed to absolute secrecy, not only for his 
mother's reasons but because of the hermeticism of his own character. 
He also agreed to the delay, but its terms seemed unrealistic to him, 
since in over half a century of independent life the nation had not had 
a single day of civil peace. 
"We'll grow old waiting," he said. 

His godfather, the homeopathic practitioner, who happened to be 
taking part in the conversation, did not believe that the wars were an 
obstacle. He thought they were nothing more than the struggles of the 
poor, driven like oxen by the landowners, against barefoot soldiers 
who were driven in turn by the government. 
"The war is in the mountains," he said. "For as long as I can 
remember, they have killed us in the cities with decrees, not with 
bullets." 

In any case, the details of the engagement were settled in their letters 
during the weeks that followed. Fermina Daza, on the advice of her 
Aunt Escolastica, accepted both the two-year extension and the 
condition of absolute secrecy, and suggested that Florentino Ariza ask 
for her hand when she finished secondary school, during the Christmas 
vacation. When the time came they would decide on how the 
engagement was to be formalized, depending on the degree of 
approval she obtained from her father. I n the meantime, they 
continued to write to each other with the same ardor and frequency, 
but free of the turmoil they had felt before, and their letters tended 
toward a domestic tone that seemed appropriate to husband and wife. 
Nothing disturbed their dreams. 

Florentino Ariza's life had changed. Requited love had given him a 
confidence and strength he had never known before, and he was so 



efficient in his work that Lotario Thugut had no trouble having him 
named his permanent assistant. By that time his plans for the School 
of Telegraphy and Magnetism had failed, and the German dedicated 
his free time to the only thing he really enjoyed: going to the port to 
play the accordion and drink beer with the sailors, finishing the 
evening at the transient hotel. It was a long time before Florentino 
Ariza, realized that Lotario Thugut's influence in the palace of pleasure 
was due to the fact that he had become the owner of the establishment 
as well as impresario for the birds in the port. He had bought it 
gradually with his savings of many years, but the person who ran it for 
him was a lean, one-eyed little man with a polished head and a heart 
so kind that no one understood how he could be such a good manager. 
But he was. At least it seemed that way to Florentino Ariza when the 
manager told him, without his requesting it, that he had the permanent 
use of a room in the hotel, not only to resolve problems of the lower 
belly whenever he decided to do so, but so that he could have at his 
disposal a quiet place for his reading and his love letters. And as the 
long months passed until the formalizing of the engagement, he spent 
more time there than at the office or his house, and there were 
periods when Transito Ariza saw him only when he came home to 
change his clothes. 

Reading had become his insatiable vice. Ever since she had taught him 
to read, his mother had bought him illustrated books by Nordic authors 
which were sold as stories for children but in reality were the crudest 
and most perverse that one could read at any age. When he was five 
years old, Florentino Ariza would recite them from memory, both in his 
classes and at literary evenings at school, but his familiarity with them 
did not alleviate the terror they caused. On the contrary, it became 



acute. So that when he began to read poetry, by comparison it was 
like finding an oasis. Even during his adolescence he had devoured, in 
the order of their appearance, all the volumes of the Popular Library 
that Transito Ariza bought from the bargain booksellers at the Arcade 
of the Scribes, where one could find everything from Homer to the 
least meritorious of the local poets. But he made no distinctions: he 
read whatever came his way, as if it had been ordained by fate, and 
despite his many years of reading, he still could not judge what was 
good and what was not in all that he had read. The only thing clear to 
him was that he preferred verse to prose, and in verse he preferred 
love poems that he memorized without even intending to after the 
second reading, and the better rhymed and metered they were, and 
the more heartrending, the more easily he learned them. 
They were the original source of his first letters to Fermina Daza, those 
half-baked endearments taken whole from the Spanish romantics, and 
his letters continued in that vein until real life obliged him to concern 
himself with matters more mundane than heartache. By that time he 
had moved on to tearful serialized novels and other, even more 
profane prose of the day. He had learned to cry with his mother as 
they read the pamphlets by local poets that were sold in plazas and 
arcades for two centavos each. But at the same time he was able to 
recite from memory the most exquisite Castilian poetry of the Golden 
Age. In general, he read everything that fell into his hands in the order 
in which it fell, so that long after those hard years of his first love, 
when he was no longer young, he would read from first page to last 
the twenty volumes of the Young People's Treasury, the complete 
catalogue of the Gamier Bros. Classics in translation, and the simplest 
works that Don Vicente Blasco Ibahez published in the Prometeo 



collection. 

I n any event, his youthful adventures in the transient hotel were not 
limited to reading and composing feverish letters but also included his 
initiation into the secrets of loveless love. Life in the house began after 
noon, when his friends the birds got up as bare as the day they were 
born, so that when Florentino Ariza arrived after work he found a 
palace populated by naked nymphs who shouted their commentaries 
on the secrets of the city, which they knew because of the faithlessness 
of the protagonists. Many displayed in their nudity traces of their past: 
scars of knife thrusts in the belly, starbursts of gunshot wounds, ridges 
of the razor cuts of love, Caesarean sections sewn up by butchers. 
Some of them had their young children with them during the day, 
those unfortunate fruits of youthful defiance or carelessness, and they 
took off their children's clothes as soon as they were brought in so they 
would not feel different in that paradise of nudity. Each one cooked her 
own food, and no one ate better than Florentino Ariza when they 
invited him for a meal, because he chose the best from each. It was a 
daily fiesta that lasted until dusk, when the naked women marched, 
singing, toward the bathrooms, asked to borrow soap, toothbrushes, 
scissors, cut each other's hair, dressed in borrowed clothes, painted 
themselves like lugubrious clowns, and went out to hunt the first prey 
of the night. Then life in the house became impersonal and 
dehumanized, and it was impossible to share in it without paying. 
Since he had known Fermina Daza, there was no place where 
Florentino Ariza felt more at ease, because it was the only place where 
he felt that he was with her. Perhaps it was for similar reasons that an 
elegant older woman with beautiful silvery hair lived there but did not 
participate in the uninhibited life of the naked women, who professed 



sacramental respect for her. A premature sweetheart had taken her 
there when she was young, and after enjoying her for a time, 
abandoned her to her fate. Nevertheless, despite the stigma, she had 
made a good marriage. When she was quite old and alone, two sons 
and three daughters argued over who would have the pleasure of 
taking her to live with them, but she could not think of a better place 
to live than that hotel of her youthful debaucheries. Her permanent 
room was her only home, and this made for immediate communion 
with Florentino Ariza, who, she said, would become a wise man known 
throughout the world because he could enrich his soul with reading in a 
paradise of salaciousness. Florentino Ariza, for his part, developed so 
much affection for her that he helped her with her shopping and would 
spend the afternoons in conversation with her. He thought she was a 
woman wise in the ways of love, since she offered many insights into 
his affair without his having to reveal any secrets to her. 
If he had not given in to the many temptations at hand before he 
experienced Fermina Daza's love, he certainly would not succumb now 
that she was his official betrothed. So Florentino Ariza lived with the 
girls and shared their pleasures and miseries, but it did not occur to 
him or them to go any further. An unforeseen event demonstrated the 
severity of his determination. One afternoon at six o'clock, when the 
girls were dressing to receive that evening's clients, the woman who 
cleaned the rooms on his floor in the hotel came into his cubicle. She 
was young, but haggard and old before her time, like a fully dressed 
penitent surrounded by glorious nakedness. He saw her every day 
without feeling himself observed: she walked through the rooms with 
her brooms, a bucket for the trash, and a special rag for picking up 
used condoms from the floor. She came into the room where 



Florentine) Ariza lay reading, and as always she cleaned with great care 
so as not to disturb him. Then she passed close to the bed, and he felt 
a warm and tender hand low on his belly, he felt it searching, he felt it 
finding, he felt it unbuttoning his trousers while her breathing filled the 
room. He pretended to read until he could not bear it any longer and 
had to move his body out of the way. 

She was dismayed, for the first thing they warned her about when they 
gave her the cleaning job was that she should not try to sleep with the 
clients. They did not have to tell her that, because she was one of 
those women who thought that prostitution did not mean going to bed 
for money but going to bed with a stranger. She had two children, 
each by a different father, not because they were casual adventures 
but because she could never love any man who came back after the 
third visit. Until that time she had been a woman without a sense of 
urgency, a woman whose nature prepared her to wait without despair, 
but life in that house proved stronger than her virtue. She came to 
work at six in the afternoon, and she spent the whole night going 
through the rooms, sweeping them out, picking up condoms, changing 
the sheets. It was difficult to imagine the number of things that men 
left after love. They left vomit and tears, which seemed 
understandable to her, but they also left many enigmas of intimacy: 
puddles of blood, patches of excrement, glass eyes, gold watches, 
false teeth, lockets with golden curls, love letters, business letters, 
condolence letters—all kinds of letters. Some came back for the items 
they had lost, but most were unclaimed, and Lotario Thugut kept them 
under lock and key and thought that sooner or later the palace that 
had seen better days, with its thousands of forgotten belongings, would 
become a museum of love. 



The work was hard and the pay was low, but she did it well. What she 
could not endure were the sobs, the laments, the creaking of the 
bedsprings, which filled her blood with so much ardor and so much 
sorrow that by dawn she could not bear the desire to go to bed with 
the first beggar she met on the street, with any miserable drunk who 
would give her what she wanted with no pretensions and no questions. 
The appearance of a man like Florentino Ariza, young, clean, and 
without a woman, was for her a gift from heaven, because from the 
first moment she realized that he was just like her: someone in need 
of love. But he was unaware of her compelling desire. He had kept his 
virginity for Fermina Daza, and there was no force or argument in this 
world that could turn him from his purpose. 

That was his life, four months before the date set for formalizing the 
engagement, when Lorenzo Daza showed up at the telegraph office 
one morning at seven o'clock and asked for him. Since he had not yet 
arrived, Lorenzo Daza waited on the bench until ten minutes after 
eight, slipping a heavy gold ring with its noble opal stone from one 
finger to another, and as soon as Florentino Ariza came in, he 
recognized him as the employee who had delivered the telegram, and 
he took him by the arm. 

"Come with me, my boy," he said. "You and I have to talk for five 
minutes, man to man." 

Florentino Ariza, as green as a corpse, let himself be led. He was not 
prepared for this meeting, because Fermina Daza had not found either 
the occasion or the means to warn him. The fact was that on the 
previous Saturday, Sister Franca de la Luz, Superior of the Academy of 
the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, had come into the class on 
Ideas of Cosmogony with the stealth of a serpent, and spying on the 



students over their shoulders, she discovered that Fermina Daza was 

pretending to take notes in her notebook when in reality she was 

writing a love letter. According to the rules of the Academy, that error 

was reason for expulsion. Lorenzo Daza received an urgent summons 

to the rectory, where he discovered the leak through which his iron 

regime was trickling. Fermina Daza, with her innate fortitude, 

confessed to the error of the letter, but refused to reveal the identity 

of her secret sweetheart and refused again before the Tribunal of the 

Order which, therefore, confirmed the verdict of expulsion. Her father, 

however, searched her room, until then an inviolate sanctuary, and in 

the false bottom of her trunk he found the packets of three years' 

worth of letters hidden away with as much love as had inspired their 

writing. The signature was unequivocal, but Lorenzo Daza could not 

believe--not then, not ever--that his daughter knew nothing about her 

secret lover except that he worked as a telegraph operator and that he 

loved the violin. 

Certain that such an intricate relationship was understandable only with 
the complicity of his sister, he did not grant her the grace of an excuse 
or the right of appeal, but shipped her on the schooner to San J uan de 
la Cienaga. Fermina Daza never found relief from her last memory of 
her aunt on the afternoon when she said goodbye in the doorway, 
burning with fever inside her brown habit, bony and ashen, and then 
disappeared into the drizzle in the little park, carrying all that she 
owned in life: her spinster's sleeping mat and enough money for a 
month, wrapped in a handkerchief that she clutched in her fist. As soon 
as she had freed herself from her father's authority, Fermina Daza 
began a search for her in the Caribbean provinces, asking for 
information from everyone who might know her, and she could not 
find a trace of her until almost thirty years later when she received a 
letter that had taken a long time to pass through many hands, 



informing her that she had died in the Water of God leprosarium. 
Lorenzo Daza did not foresee the ferocity with which his daughter 
would react to the unjust punishment of her Aunt Escolastica, whom 
she had always identified with the mother she could barely remember. 
She locked herself in her room, refused to eat or drink, and when at 
last he persuaded her to open the door, first with threats and then with 
poorly dissimulated pleading, he found a wounded panther who would 
never be fifteen years old again. 
He tried to seduce her with all kinds of flattery. He tried to make her 

understand that love at her age was an illusion, he tried to convince 

her to send back the letters and return to the Academy and beg 

forgiveness on her knees, and he gave his word of honor that he would 

be the first to help her find happiness with a worthy suitor. But it was 

like talking to a corpse. Defeated, he at last lost his temper at lunch on 

Monday, and while he choked back insults and blasphemies and was 

about to explode, she put the meat knife to her throat, without 

dramatics but with a steady hand and eyes so aghast that he did not 

dare to challenge her. That was when he took the risk of talking for 

five minutes, man to man, with the accursed upstart whom he did not 

remember ever having seen, and who had come into his life to his 

great sorrow. By force of habit he picked up his revolver before he 

went out, but he was careful to hide it under his shirt. 

Florentino Ariza still had not recovered when Lorenzo Daza held him by 

the arm and steered him across the Plaza of the Cathedral to the 

arcaded gallery of the Parish Cafe and invited him to sit on the 

terrace. There were no other customers at that hour: a black woman 

was scrubbing the tiles in the enormous salon with its chipped and 

dusty stainedglass windows, and the chairs were still upside down on 

the marble tables. Florentino Ariza had often seen Lorenzo Daza 



gambling and drinking cask wine there with the Asturians from the 
public market, while they shouted and argued about other longstanding 
wars that had nothing to do with our own. Conscious of the fatality of 
love, he had often wondered how the meeting would be that he was 
bound to have with Lorenzo Daza sooner or later, the meeting that no 
human power could forestall because it had been inscribed in both 
their destinies forever. He had supposed it would be an unequal 
dispute, not only because Fermina Daza had warned him in her letters 
of her father's stormy character, but because he himself had noted that 
his eyes seemed angry even when he was laughing at the gaming 
table. Everything about him was a testimony to crudeness: his ignoble 
belly, his emphatic speech, his lynx's side-whiskers, his rough hands, 
the ring finger smothered by the opal setting. His only endearing trait, 
which Florentino Ariza recognized the first time he saw him walking, 
was that he had the same doe's gait as his daughter. However, when 
he showed him the chair so that he could sit down, he did not find 
Lorenzo Daza as harsh as he appeared to be, and his courage revived 
when he invited him to have a glass of anisette. Florentino Ariza had 
never had a drink at eight o'clock in the morning, but he accepted with 
gratitude because his need for one was urgent. 

Lorenzo Daza, in fact, took no more than five minutes to say what he 
had to say, and he did so with a disarming sincerity that confounded 
Florentino Ariza. When his wife died he had set only one goal for 
himself: to turn his daughter into a great lady. The road was long and 
uncertain for a mule trader who did not know how to read or write and 
whose reputation as a horse thief was not so much proven as 
widespread in the province of San J uan de la Cienaga. He lit a mule 
driver's cigar and lamented: "The only thing worse than bad health is a 



bad name." He said, however, that the real secret of his fortune 
was that none of his mules worked as hard and with so much 
determination as he did himself, even during the bitterest days of the 
wars when the villages awoke in ashes and the fields in ruins. Although 
his daughter was never aware of the premeditation in her destiny, she 
behaved as if she were an enthusiastic accomplice. She was intelligent 
and methodical, to the point where she taught her father to read as 
soon as she herself learned to, and at the age of twelve she had a 
mastery of reality that would have allowed her to run the house 
without the help of her Aunt Escolastica. He sighed: "She's a mule 
worth her weight in gold." When his daughter finished primary school 
with highest marks in every subject and honorable mention at 
graduation, he understood that San J uan de la Cienaga was too narrow 
for his dreams. Then he liquidated lands and animals and moved with 
new impetus and seventy thousand gold pesos to this ruined city and 
its moth-eaten glories, where a beautiful woman with an old-fashioned 
upbringing still had the possibility of being reborn through a fortunate 
marriage. The sudden appearance of Florentino Ariza had been an 
unforeseen obstacle in his hard-fought plan. "So I have come to make 
a request of you," said Lorenzo Daza. He dipped the end of his cigar in 
the anisette, pulled on it and drew no smoke, then concluded in a 
sorrowful voice: 
"Get out of our way." 

Florentino Ariza had listened to him as he sipped his anisette, and was 
so absorbed in the disclosure of Fermina Daza's past that he did not 
even ask himself what he was going to say when it was his turn to 
speak. But when the moment arrived, he realized that anything he 
might say would compromise his destiny. 



"Have you spoken to her?" he asked. 

"That doesn't concern you," said Lorenzo Daza. 

"I ask you the question," said Florentino Ariza, "because it seems to 

me that she is the one who has to decide." 

"None of that," said Lorenzo Daza. "This is a matter for men and it will 

be decided by men." 

His tone had become threatening, and a customer who had just sat 

down at a nearby table turned to look at them. Florentino Ariza spoke 

in a most tenuous voice, but with the most imperious resolution of 

which he was capable: 

"Be that as it may, I cannot answer without knowing what she thinks. 

It would be a betrayal." 

Then Lorenzo Daza leaned back in his chair, his eyelids reddened and 

damp, and his left eye spun in its orbit and stayed twisted toward the 

outside. He, too, lowered his voice. "Don't force me to shoot you," he 

said. 

Florentino Ariza felt his intestines filling with cold froth. But his voice 

did not tremble because he felt himself illuminated by the Holy Spirit. 

"Shoot me," he said, with his hand on his chest. "There is no greater 

glory than to die for love." 

Lorenzo Daza had to look at him sideways, like a parrot, to see him 

with his twisted eye. He did not pronounce the four words so much as 

spit them out, one by one: 

"Son of a bitch!" 

That same week he took his daughter away on the journey that would 

make her forget. He gave her no explanation at all, but burst into her 

bedroom, his mustache stained with fury and his chewed cigar, and 

ordered her to pack. She asked him where they were going, and he 

answered: "To our death." Frightened by a response that seemed too 



close to the truth, she tried to face him with the courage of a few days 
before, but he took off his belt with its hammered copper buckle, 
twisted it around his fist, and hit the table with a blow that resounded 
through the house like a rifle shot. Fermina Daza knew very well the 
extent and occasion of her own strength, and so she packed a bedroll 
with two straw mats and a hammock, and two large trunks with all her 
clothes, certain that this was a trip from which she would never return. 
Before she dressed, she locked herself in the bathroom and wrote a 
brief farewell letter to Florentino Ariza on a sheet torn from the pack 
of toilet paper. Then she cut off her entire braid at the nape of her 
neck with cuticle scissors, rolled it inside a velvet box embroidered 
with gold thread, and sent it along with the letter. 
It was a demented trip. The first stage along the ridges of the Sierra 
Nevada, riding muleback in a caravan of Andean mule drivers, lasted 
eleven days, during which time they were stupefied by the naked sun 
or drenched by the horizontal October rains and almost always 
petrified by the numbing vapors rising from the precipices. On the third 
day a mule maddened by gadflies fell into a ravine with its rider, 
dragging along the entire line, and the screams of the man and his 
pack of seven animals tied to one another continued to rebound along 
the cliffs and gullies for several hours after the disaster, and continued 
to resound for years and years in the memory of Fermina Daza. All her 
baggage plunged over the side with the mules, but in the 
centuries-long instant of the fall until the scream of terror was 
extinguished at the bottom, she did not think of the poor dead mule 
driver or his mangled pack but of how unfortunate it was that the mule 
she was riding had not been tied to the others as well. 
It was the first time she had ever ridden, but the terror and 



unspeakable privations of the trip would not have seemed so bitter to 
her if it had not been for the certainty that she would never see 
Florentino Ariza again or have the consolation of his letters. She had 
not said a word to her father since the beginning of the trip, and he 
was so confounded that he hardly spoke to her even when it was an 
absolute necessity to do so, or he sent the mule drivers to her with 
messages. When their luck was good they found some roadside inn 
that served rustic food which she refused to eat, and rented them 
canvas cots stained with rancid perspiration and urine. But more often 
they spent the night in Indian settlements, in open-air public 
dormitories built at the side of the road, with their rows of wooden 
poles and roofs of bitter palm where every passerby had the right to 
stay until dawn. Fermina Daza could not sleep through a single night as 
she sweated in fear and listened in the darkness to the coming and 
going of silent travelers who tied their animals to the poles and hung 
their hammocks where they could. 

At nightfall, when the first travelers would arrive, the place was 
uncrowded and peaceful, but by dawn it had been transformed into a 
fairground, with a mass of hammocks hanging at different levels and 
Aruac Indians from the mountains sleeping on their haunches, with the 
raging of the tethered goats, and the uproar of the fighting cocks in 
their pharaonic crates, and the panting silence of the mountain dogs, 
who had been taught not to bark because of the dangers of war. Those 
privations were familiar to Lorenzo Daza, who had trafficked through 
the region for half his life and almost always met up with old friends at 
dawn. For his daughter it was perpetual agony. The stench of the loads 
of salted catfish added to the loss of appetite caused by her grief, and 
eventually destroyed her habit of eating, and if she did not go mad 



with despair it was because she always found relief in the memory of 

Florentino Ariza. She did not doubt that this was the land of forgetting. 

Another constant terror was the war. Since the start of the journey 

there had been talk of the danger of running into scattered patrols, 

and the mule drivers had instructed them in the various ways of 

recognizing the two sides so that they could act accordingly. They often 

encountered squads of mounted soldiers under the command of an 

officer, who rounded up new recruits by roping them as if they were 

cattle on the hoof. Overwhelmed by so many horrors, Fermina Daza 

had forgotten about the one that seemed more legendary than 

imminent, until one night when a patrol of unknown affiliation captured 

two travelers from the caravan and hanged them from a campano tree 

half a league from the settlement. Lorenzo Daza did not even know 

them, but he had them taken down and he gave them a Christian 

burial in thanksgiving for not having met a similar fate. And he had 

reason: the assailants had awakened him with a rifle in his stomach, 

and a commander in rags, his face smeared with charcoal, had shone a 

light on him and asked him if he was Liberal or Conservative. 

"Neither one or the other," said Lorenzo Daza. "I am a Spanish 

subject." 

"What luck!" said the commander, and he left with his hand raised in a 

salute. "Long live the King!" 

Two days later they descended to the luminous plain where the joyful 

town of Valledupar was located. There were cockfights in the patios, 

accordion music on the street corners, riders on thoroughbred horses, 

rockets and bells. A pyrotechnical castle was being assembled. Fermina 

Daza did not even notice the festivities. They stayed in the home of 

Uncle Lisimaco Sanchez, her mother's brother, who had come out to 



receive them on the King's Highway at the head of a noisy troop of 
young relatives riding the best-bred horses in the entire province, and 
they were led through the streets of the town to the accompaniment of 
exploding fireworks. The house was on the Grand Plaza, next to the 
colonial church that had been repaired several times, and it seemed 
more like the main house on a hacienda because of its large, somber 
rooms and its gallery that faced an orchard of fruit trees and smelled 
of hot sugarcane juice. 

No sooner had they dismounted in the stables than the reception 
rooms were overflowing with numerous unknown relatives whose 
unbearable effusiveness was a scourge to Fermina Daza, for she was 
incapable of ever loving anyone else in this world, she suffered from 
saddle burn, she was dying of fatigue and loose bowels, and all she 
longed for was a solitary and quiet place to cry. Her cousin 
Hildebranda Sanchez, two years older than she and with the same 
imperial haughtiness, was the only one who understood her condition 
as soon as she saw her, because she, too, was being consumed in the 
fiery coals of reckless love. When it grew dark she took her to the 
bedroom that she had prepared to share with her, and seeing the 
burning ulcers on her buttocks, she could not believe that she still 
lived. With the help of her mother, a very sweet woman who looked as 
much like her husband as if they were twins, she prepared a bath for 
her and cooled the burning with arnica compresses, while the thunder 
from the gunpowder castle shook the foundations of the house. 
At midnight the visitors left, the public fiesta scattered into smoldering 
embers, and Cousin Hildebranda lent Fermina Daza a madapollam 
nightgown and helped her to lie down in a bed with smooth sheets and 
feather pillows, and without warning she was filled with the 



instantaneous panic of happiness. When at last they were alone in the 
bedroom, Cousin Hildebranda bolted the door with a crossbar and from 
under the straw matting of her bed took out a manila envelope sealed 
in wax with the emblem of the national telegraph. It was enough for 
Fermina Daza to see her cousin's expression of radiant malice for the 
pensive scent of white gardenias to grow again in her heart's memory, 
and then she tore the red sealing wax with her teeth and drenched the 
eleven forbidden telegrams in a shower of tears until dawn. 
Then he knew. Before starting out on the journey, Lorenzo Daza had 
made the mistake of telegraphing the news to his brother-in-law 
Lisimaco Sanchez, and he in turn had sent the news to his vast and 
intricate network of kinfolk in numerous towns and villages throughout 
the province. So that Florentino Ariza not only learned the complete 
itinerary but also established an extensive brotherhood of telegraph 
operators who would follow the trail of Fermina Daza to the last 
settlement in Cabo de la Vela. This allowed him to maintain intensive 
communications with her from the time of her arrival in Valledupar, 
where she stayed three months, until the end of her journey in 
Riohacha, a year and a half later, when Lorenzo Daza took it for 
granted that his daughter had at last forgotten and he decided to 
return home. Perhaps he was not even aware of how much he had 
relaxed his vigilance, distracted as he was by the flattering words of 
the in-laws who after so many years had put aside their tribal 
prejudices and welcomed him with open arms as one of their own. The 
visit was a belated reconciliation, although that had not been its 
purpose. As a matter of fact, the family of Fermina Sanchez had been 
opposed in every way to her marrying an immigrant with no 
background who was a braggart and a boor and who was always 



traveling, trading his unbroken mules in a business that seemed too 
simple to be honest. Lorenzo Daza played for high stakes, because his 
sweetheart was the darling of a typical family of the region: an 
intricate tribe of wild women and softhearted men who were obsessed 
to the point of dementia with their sense of honor. Fermina Sanchez, 
however, settled on her desire with the blind determination of love 
when it is opposed, and she married him despite her family, with so 
much speed and so much secrecy that it seemed as if she had done so 
not for love but to cover over with a sacramental cloak some 
premature mistake. 

Twenty-five years later, Lorenzo Daza did not realize that his 
intransigence in his daughter's love affair was a vicious repetition of 
his own past, and he complained of his misfortune to the same in-laws 
who had opposed him, as they had complained in their day to their 
own kin. Still, the time he spent in lamentation was time his daughter 
gained for her love affair. So that while he went about castrating 
calves and taming mules on the prosperous lands of his in-laws, she 
was free to spend time with a troop of female cousins under the 
command of Hildebranda Sanchez, the most beautiful and obliging of 
them all, whose hopeless passion for a married man, a father who was 
twenty years older than she, had to be satisfied with furtive glances. 
After their prolonged stay in Valledupar they continued their journey 
through the foothills of the mountains, crossing flowering meadows and 
dreamlike mesas, and in all the villages they were received as they 
had been in the first, with music and fireworks and new conspiratorial 
cousins and punctual messages in the telegraph offices. Fermina Daza 
soon realized that the afternoon of their arrival in Valledupar had not 
been unusual, but rather that in this fertile province every day of the 



week was lived as if it were a holiday. The visitors slept wherever they 
happened to be at nightfall, and they ate wherever they happened to 
be hungry, for these were houses with open doors, where there was 
always a hammock hanging and a three-meat stew simmering on the 
stove in case guests arrived before the telegram announcing their 
arrival, as was almost always the case. Hildebranda Sanchez 
accompanied her cousin for the remainder of the trip, guiding her with 
joyful spirit through the tangled complexities of her blood to the very 
source of her origins. Fermina Daza learned about herself, she felt free 
for the first time, she felt herself befriended and protected, her lungs 
full of the air of liberty, which restored her tranquillity and her will to 
live. I n her final years she would still recall the trip that, with the 
perverse lucidity of nostalgia, became more and more recent in her 
memory. 

One night she came back from her daily walk stunned by the 
revelation that one could be happy not only without love, but despite 
it. The revelation alarmed her, because one of her cousins had 
surprised her parents in conversation with Lorenzo Daza, who had 
suggested the idea of arranging the marriage of his daughter to the 
only heir to the fabulous fortune of Cleofas Moscote. Fermina Daza 
knew who he was. She had seen him in the plazas, pirouetting his 
perfect horses with trappings so rich they seemed ornaments used for 
the Mass, and he was elegant and clever and had a dreamer's 
eyelashes that could make the stones sigh, but she compared him to 
her memory of poor emaciated Florentino Ariza sitting under the 
almond trees in the little park, with the book of verses on his lap, and 
she did not find even the shadow of a doubt in her heart. 
In those days Hildebranda Sanchez was delirious with hope after 



visiting a fortuneteller whose clairvoyance had astonished her. 

Dismayed by her father's intentions, Fermina Daza also went to consult 

with her. The cards said there was no obstacle in her future to a long 

and happy marriage, and that prediction gave her back her courage 

because she could not conceive of such a fortunate destiny with any 

man other than the one she loved. Exalted by that certainty, she 

assumed command of her fate. That was how the telegraphic 

correspondence with Florentino Ariza stopped being a concerto of 

intentions and illusory promises and became methodical and practical 

and more intense than ever. They set dates, established means, 

pledged their lives to their mutual determination to marry without 

consulting anyone, wherever and however they could, as soon as they 

were together again. Fermina Daza considered this commitment so 

binding that the night her father gave her permission to attend her first 

adult dance in the town of Fonseca, she did not think it was decent to 

accept without the consent of her fiance. Florentino Ariza was in the 

transient hotel that night, playing cards with Lotario Thugut, when he 

was told he had an urgent telegram on the line. 

It was the telegraph operator from Fonseca, who had keyed in through 
seven intermediate stations so that Fermina Daza could ask permission 
to attend the dance. When she obtained it, however, she was not 
satisfied with the simple affirmative answer but asked for proof that in 
fact it was Florentino Ariza operating the telegraph key at the other 
end of the line. More astonished than flattered, he composed an 
identifying phrase: Tell her that I swear by the crowned goddess. 
Fermina Daza recognized the password and stayed at her first adult 
dance until seven in the morning, when she had to change in a rush in 
order not to be late for Mass. By then she had more letters and 
telegrams in the bottom of her trunk than her father had taken away 
from her, and she had learned to behave with the air of a married 



woman. Lorenzo Daza interpreted these changes in her manner as 
proof that distance and time had cured her of her juvenile fantasies, 
but he never spoke to her about his plans for the arranged marriage. 
Their relations had become fluid within the formal reserve that she had 
imposed since the expulsion of Aunt Escolastica, and this allowed them 
such a comfortable modus vivendi that no one would have doubted 
that it was based on affection. 
It was at this time that Florentino Ariza decided to tell her in his letters 

of his determination to salvage the treasure of the sunken galleon for 

her. It was true, and it had come to him in a flash of inspiration one 

sunlit afternoon when the sea seemed paved with aluminum because 

of the numbers of fish brought to the surface by mullein. All the birds 

of the air were in an uproar because of the kill, and the fishermen had 

to drive them away with their oars so they would not have to fight with 

them for the fruits of that prohibited miracle. The use of the mullein 

plant to put the fish to sleep had been prohibited by law since colonial 

times, but it continued to be a common practice- among the fishermen 

of the Caribbean until it was replaced by dynamite. One of Florentino 

Ariza's pastimes during Fermina Daza's journey was to watch from the 

jetties as the fishermen loaded their canoes with enormous nets filled 

with sleeping fish. At the same time, a gang of boys who swam like 

sharks asked curious bystanders to toss coins into the water so they 

could dive to the bottom for them. They were the same boys who 

swam out to meet the ocean liners for that purpose, and whose skill in 

the art of diving had been the subject of so many tourist accounts 

written in the United States and Europe. Florentino Ariza had always 

known about them, even before he knew about love, but it had never 

occurred to him that perhaps they might be able to bring up the 

fortune from the galleon. It occurred to him that afternoon, and from 



the following Sunday until Fermina Daza's return almost a year later, 
he had an additional motive for delirium. 

After talking to him for only ten minutes, Euclides, one of the boy 
swimmers, became as excited as he was at the idea of an underwater 
exploration. Florentino Ariza did not reveal the whole truth of the 
enterprise, but he informed himself thoroughly regarding his abilities 
as a diver and navigator. He asked him if he could descend without air 
to a depth of twenty meters, and Euclides told him yes. He asked him 
if he was prepared to sail a fisherman's canoe by himself in the open 
sea in the middle of a storm with no instruments other than his 
instinct, and Euclides told him yes. He asked him if he could find a 
specific spot sixteen nautical miles to the northwest of the largest 
island in the Sotavento Archipelago, and Euclides told him yes. He 
asked him if he was capable of navigating by the stars at night, and 
Euclides told him yes. He asked him if he was prepared to do so for 
the same wages the fishermen paid him for helping them to fish, and 
Euclides told him yes, but with an additional five reales on Sundays. 
He asked him if he knew how to defend himself against sharks, and 
Euclides told him yes, for he had magic tricks to frighten them away. 
He asked him if he was able to keep a secret even if they put him in 
the torture chambers of the I nquisition, and Euclides told him yes, in 
fact he did not say no to anything, and he knew how to say yes with so 
much conviction that there was no way to doubt him. Then the boy 
reckoned expenses: renting the canoe, renting the canoe paddle, 
renting fishing equipment so that no one would suspect the truth 
behind their incursions. It was also necessary to take along food, a 
demijohn of fresh water, an oil lamp, a pack of tallow candles, and a 
hunter's horn to call for help in case of emergency. 



Euclides was about twelve years old, and he was fast and clever and 
an incessant talker, with an eel's body that could slither through a 
bull's-eye. The weather had tanned his skin to such a degree that it 
was impossible to imagine his original color, and this made his big 
yellow eyes seem more radiant. Florentino Ariza decided on the spot 
that he was the perfect companion for an adventure of such 
magnitude, and they embarked without further delay the following 
Sunday. 

They sailed out of the fishermen's port at dawn, well provisioned and 
better disposed, Euclides almost naked, with only the loincloth that he 
always wore, and Florentino Ariza with his frock coat, his tenebrous 
hat, his patent-leather boots, the poet's bow at his neck, and a book to 
pass the time during the crossing to the islands. From the very first 
Sunday he realized that Euclides was as good a navigator as he was a 
diver, and that he had astonishing knowledge of the character of the 
sea and the debris in the bay. He could recount in the most unexpected 
detail the history of each rusting hulk of a boat, he knew the age of 
each buoy, the origin of every piece of rubbish, the number of links in 
the chain with which the Spaniards closed off the entrance of the bay. 
Fearing that he might also know the real purpose of his expedition, 
Florentino Ariza asked him sly questions and in this way realized that 
Euclides did not have the slightest suspicion about the sunken galleon. 
Ever since he had first heard the story of the treasure in the transient 
hotel, Florentino Ariza had learned all he could about the habits of 
galleons. He learned that the San J ose was not the only ship in the 
coral depths. It was, in fact, the flagship of the Terra Firma fleet, and 
had arrived here after May 1708, having sailed from the legendary fair 
of Portobello in Panama where it had taken on part of its fortune: 



three hundred trunks of silver from Peru and Veracruz, and one 
hundred ten trunks of pearls gathered and counted on the island of 
Contadora. During the long month it had remained here, the days and 
nights had been devoted to popular fiestas, and the rest of the 
treasure intended to save the Kingdom of Spain from poverty had 
been taken aboard: one hundred sixteen trunks of emeralds from Muzo 
and Somondoco and thirty million gold coins. 
The Terra Firma fleet was composed of no less than twelve supply 
ships of varying sizes, and it set sail from this port traveling in a 
convoy with a French squadron that was heavily armed but still 
incapable of protecting the expedition from the accurate cannon shot of 
the English squadron under Commander Charles Wager, who waited for 
it in the Sotavento Archipelago, at the entrance to the bay. So the San 
J ose was not the only sunken vessel, although there was no reliable 
documented record of how many had succumbed and how many had 
managed to escape the English fire. What was certain was that the 
flagship had been among the first to sink, along with the entire crew 
and the commander standing straight on the quarterdeck, and that she 
alone carried most of the cargo. 

Florentino Ariza had learned the route of the galleons from the 
navigation charts of the period, and he thought he had determined the 
site of the shipwreck. They left the bay between the two fortresses of 
Boca Chica, and after four hours of sailing they entered the interior 
still waters of the archipelago in whose coral depths they could pick up 
sleeping lobsters with their hands. The air was so soft and the sea so 
calm and clear that Florentino Ariza felt as if he were his own 
reflection in the water. At the far end of the backwater, two hours from 
the largest island, was the site of the shipwreck. 



Suffocating in his formal clothes under the infernal sun, Florentino 
Ariza indicated to Euclides that he should try to dive to a depth of 
twenty meters and bring back anything he might find at the bottom. 
The water was so clear that he saw him moving below like a tarnished 
shark among the blue ones that crossed his path without touching him. 
Then he saw him disappear into a thicket of coral, and just when he 
thought that he could not possibly have any more air in his lungs, he 
heard his voice at his back. Euclides was standing on the bottom, with 
his arms raised and the water up to his waist. And so they continued 
exploring deeper sites, always moving toward the north, sailing over 
the indifferent manta rays, the timid squid, the rosebushes in the 
shadows, until Euclides concluded that they were wasting their time. 
"If you don't tell me what you want me to find, I don't know how I am 
going to find it," he said. 

But he did not tell him. Then Euclides proposed to him that he take off 
his clothes and dive with him, even if it was only to see that other sky 
below the world, the coral depths. But Florentino Ariza always said that 
God had made the sea to look at through the window, and he had 
never learned to swim. A short while later, the afternoon grew cloudy 
and the air turned cold and damp, and it grew dark with so little 
warning that they had to navigate by the lighthouse to find the port. 
Before they entered the bay, the enormous white ocean liner from 
France passed very close to them, all its lights blazing as it trailed a 
wake of tender stew and boiled cauliflower. 
They wasted three Sundays in this way, and they would have 
continued to waste them all if Florentino Ariza had not decided to share 
his secret with Euclides, who then modified the entire search plan, and 
they sailed along the old channel of the galleons, more than twenty 



nautical leagues to the east of the spot Florentino Ariza had decided 
on. Less than two months had gone by when, one rainy afternoon out 
at sea, Euclides spent considerable time down on the bottom and the 
canoe drifted so much that he had to swim almost half an hour to 
reach it because Florentino Ariza could not row it closer to him. When 
at last he climbed on board, he took two pieces of woman's jewelry out 
of his mouth and displayed them as if they were the prize for his 
perseverance. 

What he recounted then was so fascinating that Florentino Ariza 
promised himself that he would learn to swim and dive as far under 
water as possible just so he could see it with his own eyes. He said that 
in that spot, only eighteen meters down, there were so many old 
sailing ships lying among the coral reefs that it was impossible to even 
calculate the number, and they were spread over so extensive an area 
that you could not see to the end of them. He said that the most 
surprising thing was that none of the old wrecks afloat in the bay was 
in such good condition as the sunken vessels. He said that there were 
several caravelles with their sails still intact, and that the sunken ships 
were visible even on the bottom, for it seemed as if they had sunk 
along with their own space and time, so that they were still illumined 
by the same eleven o'clock sun that was shining on Saturday, June 9, 
when they went down. Choking on the driving force of his imagination, 
he said that the easiest one to distinguish was the galleon San J ose, 
for its name could be seen on the poop in gold letters, but it was also 
the ship most damaged by English artillery. He said he had seen an 
octopus inside, more than three centuries old, whose tentacles 
emerged through the openings in the cannon and who had grown to 
such a size in the dining room that one would have to destroy the ship 



to free him. He said he had seen the body of the commander, dressed 
for battle and floating sideways inside the aquarium of the forecastle, 
and that if he had not dived down to the hold with all its treasure, it 
was because he did not have enough air in his lungs. There were the 
proofs: an emerald earring and a medal of the Virgin, the chain 
corroded by salt. 

That was when Florentino Ariza first mentioned the treasure to Fermina 
Daza in a letter he sent to Fonseca a short while before her return. The 
history of the sunken galleon was familiar to her because she had 
heard it many times from Lorenzo Daza, who had lost 
both time and money trying to convince a company of German divers 
to join with him in salvaging the sunken treasure. He would have 
persevered in the enterprise if several members of the Academy of 
History had not convinced him that the legend of the shipwrecked 
galleon had been invented by some brigand of a viceroy to hide his 
theft of the treasures of the Crown. I n any case, Fermina Daza knew 
that the galleon lay beyond the reach of any human being, at a depth 
of two hundred meters, not the twenty claimed by Florentino Ariza. But 
she was so accustomed to his poetic excesses that she celebrated the 
adventure of the galleon as one of his most successful. Still, when she 
continued to receive other letters with still more fantastic details, 
written with as much seriousness as his promises of love, she had to 
confess to Hildebranda Sanchez her fear that her bedazzled sweetheart 
must have lost his mind. 

During this time Euclides had surfaced with so many proofs of his tale 
that it was no longer a question of playing with earrings and rings 
scattered amid the coral but of financing a major enterprise to salvage 
the fifty ships with their cargo of Babylonian treasure. Then what had 



to happen sooner or later happened: Florentino Ariza asked his mother 
for help in bringing his adventure to a successful conclusion. All she 
had to do was bite the metal settings and look at the gems made of 
glass against the light to realize that someone was taking advantage of 
her son's innocence. Euclides went down on his knees and swore to 
Florentino Ariza that he had done nothing wrong, but he was not seen 
the following Sunday in the fishermen's port, or anywhere else ever 
again. 

The only thing Florentino Ariza salvaged from that disaster was the 
loving shelter of the lighthouse. He had gone there in Euclides' canoe 
one night when a storm at sea took them by surprise, and from that 
time on he would go there in the afternoons to talk to the lighthouse 
keeper about the innumerable marvels on land and water that the 
keeper had knowledge of. It was the beginning of a friendship that 
survived the many changes in the world. Florentino Ariza learned to 
feed the fire, first with loads of wood and then with large earthen jars 
of oil, before electrical energy came to us. He learned to direct the 
light and augment it with mirrors, and on several occasions, when the 
lighthouse keeper could not do so, he stayed to keep watch over the 
night at sea from the tower. He learned to know the ships by their 
voices, by the size of their lights on the horizon, and to sense that 
something of them came back to him in the flashing beacon of the 
lighthouse. 

During the day, above all on Sundays, there was another kind of 
pleasure. I n the District of the Viceroys, where the wealthy people of 
the old city lived, the women's beaches were separated from those of 
the men by a plaster wall: one lay to the right and the other to the left 
of the lighthouse. And so the lighthouse keeper installed a spyglass 



through which one could contemplate the women's beach by paying a 
centavo. Without knowing they were being observed, the young society 
ladies displayed themselves to the best of their ability in ruffled 
bathing suits and slippers and hats that hid their bodies almost as 
much as their street clothes did and were less attractive besides. Their 
mothers, sitting out in the sun in wicker rocking chairs, wearing the 
same dresses, the same feathered hats, and holding the same organdy 
parasols as they had at High Mass, watched over them from the shore, 
for fear the men from the neighboring beaches would seduce their 
daughters under the water. The reality was that one could not see 
anything more, or anything more exciting, through the spyglass than 
one could see on the street, but there were many clients who came 
every Sunday to wrangle over the telescope for the pure delight of 
tasting the insipid forbidden fruits of the walled area that was denied 
them. 

Florentino Ariza was one of them, more from boredom than for 
pleasure, but it was not because of that additional attraction that he 
became a good friend of the lighthouse keeper. The real reason was 
that after Fermina Daza rejected him, when he contracted the fever of 
many disparate loves in his effort to replace her, it was in the 
lighthouse and nowhere else that he lived his happiest hours and found 
the best consolation for his misfortunes. It was the place he loved 
most, so much so that for years he tried to convince his mother, and 
later his Uncle Leo XII, to help him buy it. For in those days the 
lighthouses in the Caribbean were private property, and their owners 
charged ships according to their size for the right to enter the port. 
Florentino Ariza thought that it was the only honorable way to make a 
profit out of poetry, but neither his mother nor his uncle agreed with 



him, and by the time he had the resources to do it on his own, the 
lighthouses had become the property of the state. 
None of these dreams was in vain, however. The tale of the galleon 
and the novelty of the lighthouse helped to alleviate the absence of 
Fermina Daza, and then, when he least expected it, he received the 
news of her return. And in fact, after a prolonged stay in Riohacha, 
Lorenzo Daza had decided to come home. It was not the most benign 
season on the ocean, due to the December trade winds, and the 
historic schooner, the only one that would risk the crossing, might find 
itself blown by a contrary wind back to the port where it had started. 
And that is what happened. Fermina Daza spent an agonized night 
vomiting bile, strapped to her bunk in a cabin that resembled a tavern 
latrine not only because of its oppressive narrowness but also because 
of the pestilential stench and the heat. The motion was so strong that 
she had the impression several times that the straps on the bed would 
fly apart; on the deck she heard fragments of shouted lamentations 
that sounded like a shipwreck, and her father's tigerish snoring in the 
next bunk added yet another ingredient to her terror. For the first time 
in almost three years she spent an entire night awake without thinking 
for even one moment of Florentino Ariza, while he, on the other hand, 
lay sleepless in his hammock in the back room, counting the eternal 
minutes one by one until her return. At dawn the wind suddenly died 
down and the sea grew calm, and Fermina Daza realized that she had 
slept despite her devastating seasickness, because the noise of the 
anchor chains awakened her. Then she loosened the straps and went to 
the porthole, hoping to see Florentino Ariza in the tumult of the port, 
but all she saw were the customs sheds among the palm trees gilded 
by the first rays of the sun and the rotting boards of the dock in 



Riohacha, where the schooner had set sail the night before. 
The rest of the day was like a hallucination: she was in the same 
house where she had been until yesterday, receiving the same visitors 
who had said goodbye to her, talking about the same things, 
bewildered by the impression that she was reliving a piece of life she 
had already lived. It was such a faithful repetition that Fermina Daza 
trembled at the thought that the schooner trip would be a repetition, 
too, for the mere memory of it terrified her. However, the only other 
possible means of returning home was two weeks on muleback over 
the mountains in circumstances even more dangerous than the first 
time, since a new civil war that had begun in the Andean state of 
Cauca was spreading throughout the Caribbean provinces. And so at 
eight o'clock that night she was once again accompanied to the port by 
the same troop of noisy relatives shedding the same tears of farewell 
and with the same jumble of last-minute gifts and packages that did 
not fit in the cabins. When it was time to sail, the men in the family 
saluted the schooner with a volley of shots fired into the air, and 
Lorenzo Daza responded from the deck with five shots from his 
revolver. Fermina Daza's fears dissipated because the wind was 
favorable all night, and there was a scent of flowers at sea that helped 
her to sleep soundly without the safety straps. She dreamed that she 
was seeing Florentino Ariza again, and that he took off the face that 
she had always seen on him because in fact it was a mask, but his real 
face was identical to the false one. She got up very early, intrigued by 
the enigma of the dream, and she found her father drinking mountain 
coffee with brandy in the captain's bar, his eye twisted by alcohol, but 
he did not show the slightest hint of uncertainty regarding their return. 
They were coming into port. The schooner slipped in silence through 



the labyrinth of sailing ships anchored in the cove of the public market 
whose stench could be smelled several leagues out to sea, and the 
dawn was saturated by a steady drizzle that soon broke into a 
full-fledged downpour. Standing watch on the balcony of the telegraph 
office, Florentino Ariza recognized the schooner, its sails disheartened 
by the rain, as it crossed Las Animas Bay and anchored at the market 
pier. The morning before, he had waited until eleven o'clock, when he 
learned through a casual telegram of the contrary winds that had 
delayed the schooner, and on this day he had returned to his vigil at 
four o'clock in the morning. He continued to wait, not taking his eyes 
off the launch that carried ashore the few passengers who had decided 
to disembark despite the storm. Halfway across, the launch ran 
aground, and most of them had to abandon ship and splash through 
the mud to the pier. At eight o'clock, after they had waited in vain for 
the rain to stop, a black stevedore in water up to his waist received 
Fermina Daza at the rail of the schooner and carried her ashore in his 
arms, but she was so drenched that Florentino Ariza did not recognize 
her. 

She herself was not aware of how much she had matured during the 
trip until she walked into her closed house and at once undertook the 
heroic task of making it livable again with the help of Gala Placidia, 
the black servant who came back from her old slave quarters as soon 
as she was told of their return. Fermina Daza was no longer the only 
child, both spoiled and tyrannized by her father, but the lady and 
mistress of an empire of dust and cobwebs that could be saved only by 
the strength of invincible love. She was not intimidated because she 
felt herself inspired by an exalted courage that would have enabled 
her to move the world. The very night of their return, while they were 



having hot chocolate and crullers at the large kitchen table, her father 
delegated to her the authority to run the house, and he did so with as 
much formality as if it were a sacred rite. 
"I turn over to you the keys to your life," he said. 
She, with all of her seventeen years behind her, accepted with a firm 
hand, conscious that every inch of liberty she won was for the sake of 
love. The next day, after a night of bad dreams, she suffered her first 
sense of displeasure at being home when she opened the balcony 
window and saw again the sad drizzle in the little park, the statue of 
the decapitated hero, the marble bench where Florentino Ariza used to 
sit with his book of verses. She no longer thought of him as the 
impossible sweetheart but as the certain husband to whom she 
belonged heart and soul. She felt the heavy weight of the time they 
had lost while she was away, she felt how hard it was to be alive and 
how much love she was going to need to love her man as God 
demanded. She was surprised that he was not in the little park, as he 
had been so many times despite the rain, and that she had received no 
sign of any kind from him, not even a premonition, and she was 
shaken by the sudden idea that he had died. But she put aside the evil 
thought at once, for in the recent frenzy of telegrams regarding her 
imminent return they had forgotten to agree on a way to continue 
communicating once she was home. 

The truth is that Florentino Ariza was sure she had not returned, until 
the telegraph operator in Riohacha confirmed that they had embarked 
on Friday aboard the very same schooner that did not arrive the day 
before because of contrary winds, so that during the weekend he 
watched for any sign of life in her house, and at dusk on Monday he 
saw through the windows a light that moved through the house and 



was extinguished, a little after nine, in the bedroom with the balcony. 
He did not sleep, victim to the same fearful nausea that had disturbed 
his first nights of love. Transito Ariza arose with the first roosters, 
alarmed that her son had gone out to the patio at midnight and had 
not yet come back inside, and she did not find him in the house. He 
had gone to wander along the jetties, reciting love poetry into the wind 
and crying with joy until daybreak. At eight o'clock he was sitting 
under the arches of the Parish Cafe, delirious with fatigue, trying to 
think of how to send his welcome to Fermina Daza, when he felt 
himself shaken by a seismic tremor that tore his heart. 
It was she, crossing the Plaza of the Cathedral, accompanied by Gala 
Placidia who was carrying the baskets for their marketing, and for the 
first time she was not wearing her school uniform. She was taller than 
when she had left, more polished and intense, her beauty purified by 
the restraint of maturity. Her braid had grown in, but instead of letting 
it hang down her back she wore it twisted over her left shoulder, and 
that simple change had erased all girlish traces from her. Florentino 
Ariza sat bedazzled until the child of his vision had crossed the plaza, 
looking to neither the left nor the right. But then the same irresistible 
power that had paralyzed him obliged him to hurry after her when she 
turned the corner of the Cathedral and was lost in the deafening noise 
of the market's rough cobblestones. 

He followed her without letting himself be seen, watching the ordinary 
gestures, the grace, the premature maturity of the being he loved 
most in the world and whom he was seeing for the first time in her 
natural state. He was amazed by the fluidity with which she made her 
way through the crowd. While Gala Placidia bumped into people and 
became entangled in her baskets and had to run to keep up with her, 



she navigated the disorder of the street in her own time and space, not 
colliding with anyone, like a bat in the darkness. She had often been 
to the market with her Aunt Escolastica, but they made only minor 
purchases, since her father himself took charge of provisioning the 
household, not only with furniture and food but even with women's 
clothing. So this first excursion was for her a fascinating adventure 
idealized in her girlhood dreams. 

She paid no attention to the urgings of the snake charmers who 
offered her a syrup for eternal love, or to the pleas of the beggars 
lying in doorways with their running sores, or to the false I ndian who 
tried to sell her a trained alligator. She made a long and detailed tour 
with no planned itinerary, stopping with no other motive than her 
unhurried delight in the spirit of things. She entered every doorway 
where there was something for sale, and everywhere she found 
something that increased her desire to live. She relished the aroma of 
vetiver in the cloth in the great chests, she wrapped herself in 
embossed silks, she laughed at her own laughter when she saw herself 
in the full-length mirror in The Golden Wire disguised as a woman 
from Madrid, with a comb in her hair and a fan painted with flowers. In 
the store that sold imported foods she lifted the lid of a barrel of 
pickled herring that reminded her of nights in the northeast when she 
was a very little girl in San Juan de la Cienaga. She sampled an 
Alicante sausage that tasted of licorice, and she bought two for 
Saturday's breakfast, as well as some slices of cod and a jar of red 
currants in aguardiente. In the spice shop she crushed leaves of sage 
and oregano in the palms of her hands for the pure pleasure of 
smelling them, and bought a handful of cloves, another of star anise, 
and one each of ginger root and juniper, and she walked away with 



tears of laughter in her eyes because the smell of the cayenne pepper 
made her sneeze so much. In the French cosmetics shop, as she was 
buying Reuter soaps and balsam water, they put a touch of the latest 
perfume from Paris behind her ear and gave her a breath tablet to use 
after smoking. 

She played at buying, it is true, but what she really needed she bought 
without hesitation, with an authority that allowed no one to think that 
she was doing so for the first time, for she was conscious that she was 
buying not only for herself but for him as well: twelve yards of linen 
for their table, percale for the marriage sheets that by dawn would be 
damp with moisture from both their bodies, the most exquisite of 
everything for both of them to enjoy in the house of love. She asked 
for discounts and she got them, she argued with grace and dignity until 
she obtained the best, and she paid with pieces of gold that the 
shopkeepers tested for the sheer pleasure of hearing them sing against 
the marble counters. 

Florentino Ariza spied on her in astonishment, he pursued her 
breathlessly, he tripped several times over the baskets of the maid 
who responded to his excuses with a smile, and she passed so close to 
him that he could smell her scent, and if she did not see him then it 
was not because she could not but because of the haughty manner in 
which she walked. To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so 
different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no 
one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving 
stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the 
sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements 
of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had 
not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of 



her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying 
the spell. Nevertheless, when she entered the riotous noise of the 
Arcade of the Scribes, he realized that he might lose the moment he 
had craved for so many years. 

Fermina Daza shared with her schoolmates the singular idea that the 
Arcade of the Scribes was a place of perdition that was forbidden, of 
course, to decent young ladies. It was an arcaded gallery across from 
a little plaza where carriages and freight carts drawn by donkeys were 
for hire, where popular commerce became noisier and more dense. 
The name dated from colonial times, when the taciturn scribes in their 
vests and false cuffs first began to sit there, waiting for a poor man's 
fee to write all kinds of documents: memoranda of complaints or 
petition, legal testimony, cards of congratulation or condolence, love 
letters appropriate to any stage in an affair. They, of course, were not 
the ones who had given that thundering market its bad reputation but 
more recent peddlers who made illegal sales of all kinds of 
questionable merchandise smuggled in on European ships, from 
obscene postcards and aphrodisiac ointments to the famous Catalonian 
condoms with iguana crests that fluttered when circumstances required 
or with flowers at the tip that would open their petals at the will of the 
user. Fermina Daza, somewhat unskilled in the customs of the street, 
went through the Arcade without noticing where she was going as she 
searched for a shady refuge from the fierce eleven o'clock sun. 
She sank into the hot clamor of the shoeshine boys and the bird 
sellers, the hawkers of cheap books and the witch doctors and the 
sellers of sweets who shouted over the din of the crowd: pineapple 
sweets for your sweetie, coconut candy is dandy, brown-sugar loaf for 
your sugar. But, indifferent to the uproar, she was captivated on the 



spot by a paper seller who was demonstrating magic inks, red inks 
with an ambience of blood, inks of sad aspect for messages of 
condolence, phosphorescent inks for reading in the dark, invisible inks 
that revealed themselves in the light. She wanted all of them so she 
could amuse Florentino Ariza and astound him with her wit, but after 
several trials she decided on a bottle of gold ink. Then she went to the 
candy sellers sitting behind their big round jars and she bought six of 
each kind, pointing at the glass because she could not make herself 
heard over all the shouting: six angel hair, six tinned milk, six sesame 
seed bars, six cassava pastries, six chocolate bars, six blancmanges, 
six tidbits of the queen, six of this and six of that, six of everything, 
and she tossed them into the maid's baskets with an irresistible grace 
and a complete detachment from the stormclouds of flies on the syrup, 
from the continual hullabaloo and the vapor of rancid sweat that 
reverberated in the deadly heat. She was awakened from the spell by 
a good-natured black woman with a colored cloth around her head who 
was round and handsome and offered her a triangle of pineapple 
speared on the tip of a butcher's knife. She took it, she put it whole 
into her mouth, she tasted it, and was chewing it as her eyes wandered 
over the crowd, when a sudden shock rooted her on the spot. Behind 
her, so close to her ear that only she could hear it in the tumult, she 
heard his voice: 

"This is not the place for a crowned goddess." 

She turned her head and saw, a hand's breadth from her eyes, those 
other glacial eyes, that livid face, those lips petrified with fear, just as 
she had seen them in the crowd at Midnight Mass the first time he was 
so close to her, but now, instead of the commotion of love, she felt the 
abyss of disenchantment. I n an instant the magnitude of her own 



mistake was revealed to her, and she asked herself, appalled, how she 
could have nurtured such a chimera in her heart for so long and with 
so much ferocity. She just managed to think: My God, poor man! 
Florentino Ariza smiled, tried to say something, tried to follow her, but 
she erased him from her life with a wave of her hand. 
"No, please," she said to him. "Forget it." 

That afternoon, while her father was taking his siesta, she sent Gala 
Placidia with a two-line letter: "Today, when I saw you, I realized that 
what is between us is nothing more than an illusion." The maid also 
returned his telegrams, his verses, his dry camellias, and asked him to 
send back her letters and gifts, Aunt Escolastica's missal, the veins of 
leaves from her herbariums, the square centimeter of the habit of St. 
Peter Clavier, the saints' medals, the braid of her fifteenth year tied 
with the silk ribbon of her school uniform. I n the days that followed, on 
the verge of madness, he wrote her countless desperate letters and 
besieged the maid to take them to her, but she obeyed her 
unequivocal instructions not to accept anything but the returned gifts. 
She insisted with so much zeal that Florentino Ariza sent them all back 
except the braid, which he would return only to Fermina Daza in 
person so they could talk, if just for a moment. But she refused. 
Fearing a decision fatal to her son, Transito Ariza swallowed her pride 
and asked Fermina Daza to grant her the favor of five minutes of her 
time, and Fermina Daza received her for a moment in the doorway of 
her house, not asking her to sit down, not asking her to come in, and 
without the slightest trace of weakening. Two days later, after 
an argument with his mother, Florentino Ariza took down from the wall 
of his room the stained-glass case where he displayed the braid as if it 
were a holy relic, and Transito Ariza herself returned it in the velvet 



box embroidered with gold thread. Florentino Ariza never had another 
opportunity to see or talk to Fermina Daza alone in the many chance 
encounters of their very long lives until fifty-one years and nine 
months and four days later, when he repeated his vow of eternal 
fidelity and everlasting love on her first night as a widow. 



CHAPTER THREE 

AT THE AGE of twenty-eight, Dr. J uvenal Urbino had been the most 
desirable of bachelors. He had returned from a long stay in Paris, 
where he had completed advanced studies in medicine and surgery, 
and from the time he set foot on solid ground he gave overwhelming 
indications that he had not wasted a minute of his time. He returned 
more fastidious than when he left, more in control of his nature, and 
none of his contemporaries seemed as rigorous and as learned as he in 
his science, and none could dance better to the music of the day or 
improvise as well on the piano. Seduced by his personal charms and 
by the certainty of his family fortune, the girls in his circle held secret 
lotteries to determine who would spend time with him, and he 
gambled, too, on being with them, but he managed to keep himself in 
a state of grace, intact and tempting, until he succumbed without 
resistance to the plebeian charms of Fermina Daza. 
He liked to say that this love was the result of a clinical error. He 
himself could not believe that it had happened, least of all at that time 
in his life when all his reserves of passion were concentrated on the 
destiny of his city which, he said with great frequency and no second 
thoughts, had no equal in the world. In Paris, strolling arm in arm with 
a casual sweetheart through a late autumn, it seemed impossible to 
imagine a purer happiness than those golden afternoons, with the 
woody odor of chestnuts on the braziers, the languid accordions, the 
insatiable lovers kissing on the open terraces, and still he had told 
himself with his hand on his heart that he was not prepared to 
exchange all that for a single instant of his Caribbean in April. He was 
still too young to know that the heart's memory eliminates the bad and 



magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to 

endure the burden of the past. But when he stood at the railing of the 

ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the 

motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to 

dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he 

had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia. 

The ship made its way across the bay through a floating blanket of 
drowned animals, and most of the passengers took refuge in their 
cabins to escape the stench. The young doctor walked down the 
gangplank dressed in perfect alpaca, wearing a vest and dustcoat, with 
the beard of a young Pasteur and his hair divided by a neat, pale part, 
and with enough self-control to hide the lump in his throat caused not 
by terror but by sadness. On the nearly deserted dock guarded by 
barefoot soldiers without uniforms, his sisters and mother were waiting 
for him, along with his closest friends, whom he found insipid and 
without expectations despite their sophisticated airs; they spoke about 
the crisis of the civil war as if it were remote and foreign, but they all 
had an evasive tremor in their voices and an uncertainty in their eyes 
that belied their words. His mother moved him most of all. She was 
still young, a woman who had made a mark on life with her elegance 
and social drive, but who was now slowly withering in the aroma of 
camphor that rose from her widow's crepe. She must have seen herself 
in her son's confusion, and she asked in immediate self-defense why 
his skin was as pale as wax. 
"It's life over there, Mother," he said. "You turn green in Paris." 

A short while later, suffocating with the heat as he sat next to her in 

the closed carriage, he could no longer endure the unmerciful reality 

that came pouring in through the window. The ocean looked like ashes, 

the old palaces of the marquises were about to succumb to a 

proliferation of beggars, and it was impossible to discern the ardent 

scent of jasmine behind the vapors of death from the open sewers. 



Everything seemed smaller to him than when he left, poorer and 
sadder, and there were so many hungry rats in the rubbish heaps of 
the streets that the carriage horses stumbled in fright. On the long trip 
from the port to his house, located in the heart of the District of the 
Viceroys, he found nothing that seemed worthy of his nostalgia. 
Defeated, he turned his head away so that his mother would not see, 
and he began to cry in silence. 

The former palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, historic residence of 
the Urbino de la Calle family, had not escaped the surrounding 
wreckage. Dr. J uvenal Urbino discovered this with a broken heart when 
he entered the house through the gloomy portico and saw the dusty 
fountain in the interior garden and the wild brambles in flower beds 
where iguanas wandered, and he realized that many marble flagstones 
were missing and others were broken on the huge stairway with its 
copper railings that led to the principal rooms. His father, a physician 
who was more self-sacrificing than eminent, had died in the epidemic 
of Asian cholera that had devastated the population six years earlier, 
and with him had died the spirit of the house. Doha Blanca, his 
mother, smothered by mourning that was considered eternal, had 
substituted evening novenas for her dead husband's celebrated lyrical 
soirees and chamber concerts. His two sisters, despite their natural 
inclinations and festive vocation, were fodder for the convent. 
Dr. Juvenal Urbino did not sleep at all on the night of his return; he 
was frightened by the darkness and the silence, and he said three 
rosaries to the Holy Spirit and all the prayers he could remember to 
ward off calamities and shipwrecks and all manner of night terrors, 
while a curlew that had come in through a half-closed door sang every 
hour on the hour in his bedroom. He was tormented by the 



hallucinating screams of the madwomen in the Divine Shepherdess 
Asylum next door, the harsh dripping from the water jar into the 
washbasin which resonated throughout the house, the long-legged 
steps of the curlew wandering in his bedroom, his congenital fear of 
the dark, and the invisible presence of his dead father in the vast, 
sleeping mansion. When the curlew sang five o'clock along with the 
local roosters, Dr. Juvenal Urbino commended himself body and soul to 
Divine Providence because he did not have the heart to live another 
day in his rubble-strewn homeland. But in time the affection of his 
family, the Sundays in the country, and the covetous attentions of the 
unmarried women of his class mitigated the bitterness of his first 
impression. Little by little he grew accustomed to the sultry heat of 
October, to the excessive odors, to the hasty judgments of his friends, 
to the We'll see tomorrow, Doctor, don't worry, and at last he gave in 
to the spell of habit. It did not take him long to invent an easy 
justification for his surrender. This was his world, he said to himself, 
the sad, oppressive world that God had provided for him, and he was 
responsible to it. 

The first thing he did was to take possession of his father's office. He 
kept in place the hard, somber English furniture made of wood that 
sighed in the icy cold of dawn, but he consigned to the attic the 
treatises on viceregal science and romantic medicine and filled the 
bookshelves behind their glass doors with the writings of the new 
French school. He took down the faded pictures, except for the one of 
the physician arguing with Death for the nude body of a female 
patient, and the Hippocratic Oath printed in Gothic letters, and he hung 
in their place, next to his father's only diploma, the many diverse ones 
he himself had received with highest honors from various schools in 



Europe. 

He tried to impose the latest ideas at Misericordia Hospital, but this 
was not as easy as it had seemed in his youthful enthusiasm, for the 
antiquated house of health was stubborn in its attachment to atavistic 
superstitions, such as standing beds in pots of water to prevent disease 
from climbing up the legs, or requiring evening wear and chamois 
gloves in the operating room because it was taken for granted that 
elegance was an essential condition for asepsis. They could not 
tolerate the young newcomer's tasting a patient's urine to determine 
the presence of sugar, quoting Charcot and Trousseau as if they were 
his roommates, issuing severe warnings in class against the mortal 
risks of vaccines while maintaining a suspicious faith in the recent 
invention of suppositories. He was in conflict with everything: his 
renovating spirit, his maniacal sense of civic duty, his slow humor in a 
land of immortal pranksters—everything, in fact, that constituted his 
most estimable virtues provoked the resentment of his older 
colleagues and the sly jokes of the younger ones. 
His obsession was the dangerous lack of sanitation in the city. He 
appealed to the highest authorities to fill in the Spanish sewers that 
were an immense breeding ground for rats, and to build in their place 
a closed sewage system whose contents would not empty into the cove 
at the market, as had always been the case, but into some distant 
drainage area instead. The well-equipped colonial houses had latrines 
with septic tanks, but two thirds of the population lived in shanties at 
the edge of the swamps and relieved themselves in the open air. The 
excrement dried in the sun, turned to dust, and was inhaled by 
everyone along with the joys of Christmas in the cool, gentle breezes 
of December. Dr. Juvenal Urbino attempted to force the City Council to 



impose an obligatory training course so that the poor could learn how 
to build their own latrines. He fought in vain to stop them from tossing 
garbage into the mangrove thickets that over the centuries had 
become swamps of putrefaction, and to have them collect it instead at 
least twice a week and incinerate it in some uninhabited area. 
He was aware of the mortal threat of the drinking water. The mere 
idea of building an aqueduct seemed fantastic, since those who might 
have supported it had underground cisterns at their disposal, where 
water rained down over the years was collected under a thick layer of 
scum. Among the most valued household articles of the time were 
carved wooden water collectors whose stone filters dripped day and 
night into large earthen water jars. To prevent anyone from drinking 
from the aluminum cup used to dip out the water, its edges were as 
jagged as the crown of a mock king. The water was crystalline and cool 
in the dark clay, and it tasted of the forest. But Dr. J uvenal Urbino was 
not taken in by these appearances of purity, for he knew that despite 
all precautions, the bottom of each earthen jar was a sanctuary for 
waterworms. He had spent the slow hours of his childhood watching 
them with an almost mystical astonishment, convinced along with so 
many other people at the time that waterworms were animes, 
supernatural creatures who, from the sediment in still water, courted 
young maidens and could inflict furious vengeance because of love. As 
a boy he had seen the havoc they had wreaked in the house of Lazara 
Conde, a schoolteacher who dared to rebuff the animes, and he had 
seen the watery trail of glass in the street and the mountain of stones 
they had thrown at her 

windows for three days and three nights. And so it was a long while 
before he learned that waterworms were in reality the larvae of 



mosquitoes, but once he learned it he never forgot it, because from 
that moment on he realized that they and many other evil animes 
could pass through our simple stone filters intact. 
For a long time the water in the cisterns had been honored as the 
cause of the scrotal hernia that so many men in the city endured not 
only without embarrassment but with a certain patriotic insolence. 
When J uvenal Urbino was in elementary school, he could not avoid a 
spasm of horror at the sight of men with ruptures sitting in their 
doorways on hot afternoons, fanning their enormous testicle as if it 
were a child sleeping between their legs. It was said that the hernia 
whistled like a lugubrious bird on stormy nights and twisted in 
unbearable pain when a buzzard feather was burned nearby, but no 
one complained about those discomforts because a large, well-carried 
rupture was, more than anything else, a display of masculine honor. 
When Dr. Juvenal Urbino returned from Europe he was already well 
aware of the scientific fallacy in these beliefs, but they were so rooted 
in local superstition that many people opposed the mineral enrichment 
of the water in the cisterns for fear of destroying its ability to cause an 
honorable rupture. 

I mpure water was not all that alarmed Dr. J uvenal Urbino. He was just 
as concerned with the lack of hygiene at the public market, a vast 
extension of cleared land along Las Animas Bay where the sailing ships 
from the Antilles would dock. An illustrious traveler of the period 
described the market as one of the most varied in the world. It was 
rich, in fact, and profuse and noisy, but also, perhaps, the most 
alarming of markets. Set on its own garbage heap, at the mercy of 
capricious tides, it was the spot where the bay belched filth from the 
sewers back onto land. The offal from the adjoining slaughterhouse 



was also thrown away there—severed heads, rotting viscera, animal 
refuse that floated, in sunshine and starshine, in a swamp of blood. 
The buzzards fought for it with the rats and the dogs in a perpetual 
scramble among the deer and succulent capons from Sotavento 
hanging from the eaves of the market stalls, and the spring vegetables 
from Arjona displayed on straw mats spread over the ground. Dr. 
Urbino wanted to make the place sanitary, he wanted a slaughterhouse 
built somewhere else and a covered market constructed with 
stained-glass turrets, like the one he had seen in the old boquerias in 
Barcelona, where the provisions looked so splendid and clean that it 
seemed a shame to eat them. But even the most complaisant of his 
notable friends pitied his illusory passion. That is how they were: they 
spent their lives proclaiming their proud origins, the historic merits of 
the city, the value of its relics, its heroism, its beauty, but they were 
blind to the decay of the years. Dr. J uvenal Urbino, on the other hand, 
loved it enough to see it with the eyes of truth. 

"How noble this city must be," he would say, "for we have spent four 
hundred years trying to finish it off and we still have not succeeded," 
They almost had, however. The epidemic of cholera morbus, whose 
first victims were struck down in the standing water of the market, 
had, in eleven weeks, been responsible for the greatest death toll in 
our history. Until that time the eminent dead were interred under the 
flagstones in the churches, in the exclusive vicinity of archbishops and 
capitulars, while the less wealthy were buried in the patios of 
convents. The poor were sent to the colonial cemetery, located on a 
windy hill that was separated from the city by a dry canal whose 
mortar bridge bore the legend carved there by order of some 
clairvoyant mayor: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate. After the first 



two weeks of the 

cholera epidemic, the cemetery was overflowing and there was no 
room left in the churches despite the fact that they had dispatched the 
decayed remains of many nameless civic heroes to the communal 
ossuary. The air in the Cathedral grew thin with the vapors from badly 
sealed crypts, and its doors did not open again until three years later, 
at the time that Fermina Daza saw Florentino Ariza at close quarters as 
she left Midnight Mass. By the third week the cloister of the Convent of 
St. Clare was full all the way to its poplar-lined walks, and it was 
necessary to use the Community's orchard, which was twice as large, 
as a cemetery. There graves were dug deep enough to bury the dead 
on three levels, without delay and without coffins, but this had to be 
stopped because the brimming ground turned into a sponge that oozed 
sickening, infected blood at every step. Then arrangements were made 
to continue burying in The Hand of God, a cattle ranch less than a 
league from the city, which was later consecrated as the Universal 
Cemetery. 

From the time the cholera proclamation was issued, the local garrison 
shot a cannon from the fortress every quarter hour, day and night, in 
accordance with the local superstition that gunpowder purified the 
atmosphere. The cholera was much more devastating to the black 
population, which was larger and poorer, but in reality it had no regard 
for color or background. It ended as suddenly as it had begun, and the 
extent of its ravages was never known, not because this was 
impossible to establish but because one of our most widespread virtues 
was a certain reticence concerning personal misfortune. 
Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino, the father of Juvenal, was a civic hero during 
that dreadful time, as well as its most distinguished victim. By official 



decree he personally designed and directed public health measures, 
but on his own initiative he intervened to such an extent in every 
social question that during the most critical moments of the plague no 
higher authority seemed to exist. Years later, reviewing the chronicle 
of those days, Dr. J uvenal Urbino confirmed that his father's 
methodology had been more charitable than scientific and, in many 
ways, contrary to reason, so that in large measure it had fostered the 
voraciousness of the plague. He confirmed this with the compassion of 
sons whom life has turned, little by little, into the fathers of their 
fathers, and for the first time he regretted not having stood with his 
father in the solitude of his errors. But he did not dispute his merits: 
his diligence and his self-sacrifice and above all his personal courage 
deserved the many honors rendered him when the city recovered from 
the disaster, and it was with justice that his name was found among 
those of so many other heroes of less honorable wars. 
He did not live to see his own glory. When he recognized in himself the 
irreversible symptoms that he had seen and pitied in others, he did not 
even attempt a useless struggle but withdrew from the world so as not 
to infect anyone else. Locked in a utility room at Misericordia Hospital, 
deaf to the calls of his colleagues and the pleas of his family, removed 
from the horror of the plague victims dying on the floor in the packed 
corridors, he wrote a letter of feverish love to his wife and children, a 
letter of gratitude for his existence in which he revealed how much and 
with how much fervor he had loved life. It was a farewell of twenty 
heartrending pages in which the progress of the disease could be 
observed in the deteriorating script, and it was not necessary to know 
the writer to realize that he had signed his name with his last breath. 
In accordance with his instructions, his ashen body was mingled with 



others in the communal cemetery and was not seen by anyone who 
loved him. 

Three days later, in Paris, Dr. Juvenal Urbino received a telegram 
during supper with friends, and he toasted the memory of his father 
with champagne. He said: "He was a good man." Later he would 
reproach himself for his lack of maturity: he had avoided reality in 
order not to cry. But three weeks later he received a copy of the 
posthumous letter, and then he surrendered to the truth. All at once 
the image of the man he had known before he knew any other was 
revealed to him in all its profundity, the man who had raised him and 
taught him and had slept and fornicated with his mother for thirty-two 
years and yet who, before that letter, had never revealed himself body 
and soul because of timidity, pure and simple. Until then Dr. Juvenal 
Urbino and his family had conceived of death as a misfortune that 
befell others, other people's fathers and mothers, other people's 
brothers and sisters and husbands and wives, but not theirs. They were 
people whose lives were slow, who did not see themselves growing 
old, or falling sick, or dying, but who disappeared little by little in their 
own time, turning into memories, mists from other days, until they 
were absorbed into oblivion. His father's posthumous letter, more than 
the telegram with the bad news, hurled him headlong against the 
certainty of death. And yet one of his oldest memories, when he was 
nine years old perhaps, perhaps when he was eleven, was in a way an 
early sign of death in the person of his father. One rainy afternoon the 
two of them were in the office his father kept in the house; he was 
drawing larks and sunflowers with colored chalk on the tiled floor, and 
his father was reading by the light shining through the window, his vest 
unbuttoned and elastic armbands on his shirt sleeves. Suddenly he 



stopped reading to scratch his back with a long-handled back scratcher 
that had a little silver hand on the end. Since he could not reach the 
spot that itched, he asked his son to scratch him with his nails, and as 
the boy did so he had the strange sensation of not feeling his own 
body. At last his father looked at him over his shoulder with a sad 
smile. 

"If I died now," he said, "you would hardly remember me when you 
are my age." 

He said it for no apparent reason, and the angel of death hovered for a 
moment in the cool shadows of the office and flew out again through 
the window, leaving a trail of feathers fluttering in his wake, but the 
boy did not see them. More than twenty years had gone by since then, 
and J uvenal Urbino would very soon be as old as his father was that 
afternoon. He knew he was identical to him, and to that awareness had 
now been added the awful consciousness that he was also as mortal. 
Cholera became an obsession for him. He did not know much more 
about it than he had learned in a routine manner in some marginal 
course, when he had found it difficult to believe that only thirty years 
before, it had been responsible for more than one hundred forty 
thousand deaths in France, including Paris. But after the death of his 
father he learned all there was to know about the different forms of 
cholera, almost as a penance to appease his memory, and he studied 
with the most outstanding epidemiologist of his time and the creator of 
the cordons sanitaires, Professor Adrien Proust, father of the great 
novelist. So that when he returned to his country and smelled the 
stench of the market while he was still out at sea and saw the rats in 
the sewers and the children rolling naked in the puddles on the streets, 
he not only understood how the tragedy had occurred but was certain 



that it would be repeated at any moment. 

The moment was not long in coming. I n less than a year his students 
at Misericordia Hospital asked for his help in treating a charity patient 
with a strange blue coloration all over his body. Dr. Juvenal Urbino had 
only to see him from the doorway to recognize the enemy. But they 
were in luck: the patient had arrived three days earlier on a schooner 
from Curagao and had come to the hospital clinic by himself, and it did 
not seem probable that he had infected anyone else. In any event, Dr. 
J uvenal Urbino alerted his colleagues and had the authorities warn the 
neighboring ports so that they could locate and quarantine the 
contaminated schooner, and he had to restrain the military commander 
of the city who wanted to declare martial law and initiate the 
therapeutic strategy of firing the cannon every quarter hour. 
"Save that powder for when the Liberals come," he said with good 
humor. "We are no longer in the Middle Ages." 

The patient died in four days, choked by a grainy white vomit, but in 
the following weeks no other case was discovered despite constant 
vigilance. A short while later, The Commercial Daily published the 
news that two children had died of cholera in different locations in the 
city. It was learned that one of them had had common dysentery, but 
the other, a girl of five, appeared to have been, in fact, a victim of 
cholera. Her parents and three brothers were separated and placed 
under individual quarantine, and the entire neighborhood was 
subjected to strict medical supervision. One of the children contracted 
cholera but recovered very soon, and the entire family returned home 
when the danger was over. Eleven more cases were reported in the 
next three months, and in the fifth there was an alarming outbreak, 
but by the end of the year it was believed that the danger of an 



epidemic had been averted. No one doubted that the sanitary rigor of 
Dr. J uvenal Urbino, more than the efficacy of his pronouncements, had 
made the miracle possible. From that time on, and well into this 
century, cholera was endemic not only in the city but along most of the 
Caribbean coast and the valley of the Magdalena, but it never again 
flared into an epidemic. The crisis meant that Dr. Juvenal Urbino's 
warnings were heard with greater seriousness by public officials. They 
established an obligatory Chair of Cholera and Yellow Fever in the 
Medical School, and realized the urgency of closing up the sewers and 
building a market far from the garbage dump. By that time, however, 
Dr. Urbino was not concerned with proclaiming victory, nor was he 
moved to persevere in his social mission, for at that moment one of 
his wings was broken, he was distracted and in disarray and ready to 
forget everything else in life, because he had been struck by the 
lightning of his love for Fermina Daza. 

It was, in fact, the result of a clinical error. A physician who was a 
friend of his thought he detected the warning symptoms of cholera in 
an eighteen-year-old patient, and he asked Dr. Juvenal Urbino to see 
her. He called that very afternoon, alarmed at the possibility that the 
plague had entered the sanctuary of the old city, for all the cases until 
that time had occurred in the poor neighborhoods, and almost all of 
those among the black population. He encountered other, less 
unpleasant, surprises. From the outside, the house, shaded by the 
almond trees in the Park of the Evangels, appeared to be in ruins, as 
did the others in the colonial district, but inside there was a harmony 
of beauty and an astonishing light that seemed to come from another 
age. The entrance opened directly into a square Sevillian patio that 
was white with a recent coat of lime and had flowering orange trees 



and the same tiles on the floor as on the walls. There was an invisible 
sound of running water, and pots with carnations on the cornices, and 
cages of strange birds in the arcades. The strangest of all were three 
crows in a very large cage, who filled the patio with an ambiguous 
perfume every time they flapped their wings. Several dogs, chained 
elsewhere in the house, began to bark, maddened by the scent of a 
stranger, but a woman's shout stopped them dead, and numerous cats 
leapt all around the patio and hid among the flowers, frightened by the 
authority in the voice. Then there was such a diaphanous silence that 
despite the disorder of the birds and the syllables of water on stone, 
one could hear the desolate breath of the sea. 
Shaken by the conviction that God was present, Dr. Juvenal Urbino 
thought that such a house was immune to the plague. He followed Gala 
Placidia along the arcaded corridor, passed by the window of the 
sewing room where Florentino Ariza had seen Fermina Daza for the 
first time, when the patio was still a shambles, climbed the new 
marble stairs to the second floor, and waited to be announced before 
going into the patient's bedroom. But Gala Placidia came out again 
with a message: 

"The sehorita says you cannot come in now because her papa is not at 
home." 

And so he returned at five in the afternoon, in accordance with the 
maid's instructions, and Lorenzo Daza himself opened the street door 
and led him to his daughter's bedroom. There he remained, sitting in a 
dark corner with his arms folded, and making futile efforts to control 
his ragged breathing during the examination. It was not easy to know 
who was more constrained, the doctor with his chaste touch or the 
patient in the silk chemise with her virgin's modesty, but neither one 



looked the other in the eye; instead, he asked questions in an 
impersonal voice and she responded in a tremulous voice, both of 
them very conscious of the man sitting in the shadows. At last Dr. 
J uvenal Urbino asked the patient to sit up, and with exquisite care he 
opened her nightdress down to the waist; her pure high breasts with 
the childish nipples shone for an instant in the darkness of the 
bedroom, like a flash of gunpowder, before she hurried to cover them 
with crossed arms. Imperturbable, the physician opened her arms 
without looking at her and examined her by direct auscultation, his ear 
against her skin, first the chest and then the back. 
Dr. Juvenal Urbino used to say that he experienced no emotion when 
he met the woman with whom he would live until the day of his death. 
He remembered the sky-blue chemise edged in lace, the feverish 
eyes, the long hair hanging loose over her shoulders, but he was so 
concerned with the outbreak of cholera in the colonial district that he 
took no notice of her flowering adolescence: he had eyes only for the 
slightest hint that she might be a victim of the plague. She was more 
explicit: the young doctor she had heard so much about in connection 
with the cholera epidemic seemed a pedant incapable of loving anyone 
but himself. The diagnosis was an intestinal infection of alimentary 
origin, which was cured by three days of treatment at home. Relieved 
by this proof that his daughter had not contracted cholera, Lorenzo 
Daza accompanied Dr. J uvenal Urbino to the door of his carriage, paid 
him a gold peso for the visit, a fee that seemed excessive even for a 
physician to the rich, and he said goodbye with immoderate 
expressions of gratitude. He was overwhelmed by the splendor of the 
Doctor's family names, and he not only did not hide it but would have 
done anything to see him again, under less formal circumstances. 



The case should have been considered closed. But on Tuesday of the 
following week, without being called and with no prior announcement, 
Dr. J uvenal Urbino returned to the house at the inconvenient hour of 
three in the afternoon. Fermina Daza was in the sewing room, having a 
lesson in oil painting with two of her friends, when he appeared at the 
window in his spotless white frock coat and his white top hat and 
signaled to her to come over to him. She put her palette down on a 
chair and tiptoed to the window, her ruffled skirt raised to keep it from 
dragging on the floor. She wore a diadem with a jewel that hung on 
her forehead, and the luminous stone was the same aloof color as her 
eyes, and everything in her breathed an aura of coolness. The Doctor 
was struck by the fact that she was dressed for painting at home as if 
she were going to a party. He took her pulse through the open window, 
he had her stick out her tongue, he examined her throat with an 
aluminum tongue depressor, he looked inside her lower eyelids, and 
each time he nodded in approval. He was less inhibited than on the 
previous visit, but she was more so, because she could not understand 
the reason for the unexpected examination if he himself had said that 
he would not come back unless they called him because of some 
change. And even more important: she did not ever want to see him 
again. When he finished his examination, the Doctor put the tongue 
depressor back into his bag, crowded with instruments and bottles of 
medicine, and closed it with a resounding snap. 
"You are like a new-sprung rose," he said. "Thank you." 
"Thank God," he said, and he misquoted St. Thomas: "Remember that 
everything that is good, whatever its origin, comes from the Holy 
Spirit. Do you like music?" 
"What is the point of that question?" she asked in turn. "Music is 



important for one's health," he said. 

He really thought it was, and she was going to know very soon, and for 

the rest of her life, that the topic of music was almost a magic formula 

that he used to propose friendship, but at that moment she interpreted 

it as a joke. Besides, her two friends, who had pretended to paint while 

she and Dr. Juvenal Urbino were talking at the window, tittered and 

hid their faces behind their palettes, and this made Fermina Daza lose 

her self-control. Blind with fury, she slammed the window shut. The 

Doctor stared at the sheer lace curtains in bewilderment, he tried to 

find the street door but lost his way, and in his confusion he knocked 

into the cage with the perfumed crows. They broke into sordid 

shrieking, flapped their wings in fright, and saturated the Doctor's 

clothing with a feminine fragrance. The thundering voice of Lorenzo 

Daza rooted him to the spot: "Doctor—wait for me there." 

He had seen everything from the upper floor and, swollen and livid, he 

came down the stairs buttoning his shirt, his side-whiskers still in an 

uproar after a restless siesta. The Doctor tried to overcome his 

embarrassment. 

"I told your daughter that she is like a rose." 

"True enough," said Lorenzo Daza, "but one with too many thorns." 
He walked past Dr. Urbino without greeting him. He pushed open the 

sewing room window and shouted a rough command to his daughter: 

"Come here and beg the Doctor's pardon." 

The Doctor tried to intervene and stop him, but Lorenzo Daza paid no 

attention to him. He insisted: "Hurry up." She looked at her friends 

with a secret plea for understanding, and she said to her father that 

she had nothing to beg pardon for, she had only closed the window to 

keep out the sun. Dr. Urbino, with good humor, tried to confirm her 



words, but Lorenzo Daza insisted that he be obeyed. Then Fermina 
Daza, pale with rage, turned toward the window, and extending her 
right foot as she raised her skirt with her fingertips, she made a 
theatrical curtsy to the Doctor. 

"I give you my most heartfelt apologies, sir," she said. 
Dr. Juvenal Urbino imitated her with good humor, making a cavalier's 
flourish with his top hat, but he did not win the compassionate smile he 
had hoped for. Then Lorenzo Daza invited him to have a cup of coffee 
in his office to set things right, and he accepted with 
pleasure so that there would be no doubt whatsoever that he did not 
harbor a shred of resentment in his heart. 

The truth was that Dr. Juvenal Urbino did not drink coffee, except for a 
cup first thing in the morning. He did not drink alcohol either, except 
for a glass of wine with meals on solemn occasions, but he not only 
drank down the coffee that Lorenzo Daza offered him, he also accepted 
a glass of anisette. Then he accepted another coffee with another 
anisette, and then another and another, even though he still had to 
make a few more calls. At first he listened with attention to the 
excuses that Lorenzo Daza continued to offer in the name of his 
daughter, whom he defined as an intelligent and serious girl, worthy of 
a prince whether he came from here or anywhere else, whose only 
defect, so he said, was her mulish character. But after the second 
anisette, the Doctor thought he heard Fermina Daza's voice at the 
other end of the patio, and his imagination went after her, followed 
her through the night that had just descended in the house as she lit 
the lights in the corridor, fumigated the bedrooms with the insecticide 
bomb, uncovered the pot of soup on the stove, which she was going to 
share that night with her father, the two of them alone at the table, 



she not raising her eyes, not tasting the soup, not breaking the 
rancorous spell, until he was forced to give in and ask her to forgive 
his severity that afternoon. 

Dr. Urbino knew enough about women to realize that Fermina Daza 
would not pass by the office until he left, but he stayed nevertheless 
because he felt that wounded pride would give him no peace after the 
humiliations of the afternoon. Lorenzo Daza, who by now was almost 
drunk, did not seem to notice his lack of attention, for he was satisfied 
with his own indomitable eloquence. He talked at full gallop, chewing 
the flower of his unlit cigar, coughing in shouts, trying to clear his 
throat, attempting with great difficulty to find a comfortable position in 
the swivel chair, whose springs wailed like an animal in heat. He had 
drunk three glasses of anisette to each one drunk by his guest, and he 
paused only when he realized that they could no longer see each 
other, and he stood up to light the lamp. Dr. Juvenal Urbino looked at 
him in the new light, he saw that one eye was twisted like a fish's and 
that his words did not correspond to the movement of his lips, and he 
thought these were hallucinations brought on by his abuse of alcohol. 
Then he stood up, with the fascinating sensation that he was inside a 
body that belonged not to him but to someone who was still in the 
chair where he had been sitting, and he had to make a great effort not 
to lose his mind. 

It was after seven o'clock when he left the office, preceded by Lorenzo 
Daza. There was a full moon. The patio, idealized by anisette, floated 
at the bottom of an aquarium, and the cages covered with cloths 
looked like ghosts sleeping under the hot scent of new orange 
blossoms. The sewing room window was open, there was a lighted 
lamp on the worktable, and the unfinished paintings were on their 



easels as if they were on exhibit. "Where art thou that thou art not 
here," said Dr. Urbino as he passed by, but Fermina Daza did not hear 
him, she could not hear him, because she was crying with rage in her 
bedroom, lying face down on the bed and waiting for her father so that 
she could make him pay for the afternoon's humiliation. The Doctor did 
not renounce his hope of saying goodbye to her, but Lorenzo Daza did 
not suggest it. He yearned for the innocence of her pulse, her cat's 
tongue, her tender tonsils, but he was disheartened by the idea that 
she never wanted to see him again and would never permit him to try 
to see her. When Lorenzo Daza walked into the entryway, the crows, 
awake under their sheets, emitted a funereal shriek. "They will peck 
out your eyes," the Doctor said aloud, thinking of her, and Lorenzo 
Daza turned around to ask him what he had said. 
"It was not me," he said. "It was the anisette." 

Lorenzo Daza accompanied him to his carriage, trying to force him to 
accept a gold peso for the second visit, but he would not take it. He 
gave the correct instructions to the driver for taking him to the houses 
of the two patients he still had to see, and he climbed into the carriage 
without help. But he began to feel sick as they bounced along the 
cobbled streets, so that he ordered the driver to take a different route. 
He looked at himself for a moment in the carriage mirror and saw that 
his image, too, was still thinking about Fermina Daza. He shrugged his 
shoulders. Then he belched, lowered his head to his chest, and fell 
asleep, and in his dream he began to hear funeral bells. First he heard 
those of the Cathedral and then he heard those of all the other 
churches, one after another, even the cracked pots of St. Julian the 
Hospitaler. 
"Shit," he murmured in his sleep, "the dead have died." His mother 



and sisters were having cafe con leche and crullers for supper at the 
formal table in the large dining room when they saw him appear in the 
door, his face haggard and his entire being dishonored by the whorish 
perfume of the crows. The largest bell of the adjacent Cathedral 
resounded in the immense empty space of the house. His mother 
asked him in alarm where in the world he had been, for they had 
looked everywhere for him so that he could attend General Ignacio 
Maria, the last grandson of the Marquis de J araiz de la Vera, who had 
been struck down that afternoon by a cerebral hemorrhage: it was for 
him that the bells were tolling. Dr. J uvenal Urbino listened to his 
mother without hearing her as he clutched the doorframe, and then he 
gave a half turn, trying to reach his bedroom, but he fell flat on his 
face in an explosion of star anise vomit. 

"Mother of God," shouted his mother. "Something very strange must 
have happened for you to show up in your own house in this state." 
The strangest thing, however, had not yet occurred. Taking advantage 
of the visit of the famous pianist Romeo Lussich, who played a cycle of 
Mozart sonatas as soon as the city had recovered from mourning the 
death of General Ignacio Maria, Dr. J uvenal Urbino had the piano from 
the Music School placed in a mule-drawn wagon and brought a 
history-making serenade to Fermina Daza. She was awakened by the 
first measures, and she did not have to look out the grating on the 
balcony to know who was the sponsor of that uncommon tribute. The 
only thing she regretted was not having the courage of other harassed 
maidens, who emptied their chamber pots on the heads of unwanted 
suitors. Lorenzo Daza, on the other hand, dressed without delay as the 
serenade was playing, and when it was over he had Dr. Juvenal Urbino 
and the pianist, still wearing their formal concert clothes, come in to 



the visitors' parlor, where he thanked them for the serenade with a 
glass of good brandy. 

Fermina Daza soon realized that her father was trying to soften her 
heart. The day after the serenade, he said to her in a casual manner: 
"Imagine how your mother would feel if she knew you were being 
courted by an Urbino de la Calle." Her dry response was: "She would 
turn over in her grave." The friends who painted with her told her that 
Lorenzo Daza had been invited to lunch at the Social Club by Dr. 
Juvenal Urbino, who had received a severe reprimand for breaking 
club rules. It was only then that she learned that her father had 
applied for membership in the Social Club on several occasions, and 
that each time he had been rejected with such a large number of black 
balls that another attempt was not possible. But Lorenzo Daza had an 
infinite capacity for assimilating humiliations, and he continued his 
ingenious strategies for arranging casual encounters with Juvenal 
Urbino, not realizing that it was J uvenal Urbino who went out of his 
way to let himself be encountered. At times they spent hours chatting 
in the office, while the house seemed suspended at the edge of time 
because Fermina Daza would not permit anything to run its normal 
course until he left. The Parish Cafe was a good intermediate haven. It 
was there that Lorenzo Daza gave J uvenal Urbino his first lessons in 
chess, and he was such a diligent pupil that chess became an incurable 
addiction that tormented him until the day of his death. 
One night, a short while after the serenade by solo piano, Lorenzo 
Daza discovered a letter, its envelope sealed with wax, in the 
entryway to his house. It was addressed to his daughter and the 
monogram "J .U.C." was imprinted on the seal. He slipped it under the 
door as he passed Fermina's bedroom, and she never understood how 



it had come there, since it was inconceivable to her that her father had 

changed so much that he would bring her a letter from a suitor. She 

left it on the night table, for the truth was she did not know what to do 

with it, and there it stayed, unopened, for several days, until one rainy 

afternoon when Fermina Daza dreamed that Juvenal Urbino had 

returned to the house to give her the tongue depressor he had used to 

examine her throat. I n the dream, the tongue depressor was made not 

of aluminum but of a delicious metal that she had tasted with pleasure 

in other dreams, so that she broke it in two unequal pieces and gave 

him the smaller one. 

When she awoke she opened the letter. It was brief and proper, and 
all that J uvenal Urbino asked was permission to request her father's 
permission to visit her. She was impressed by its simplicity and 
seriousness, and the rage she had cultivated with so much love for so 
many days faded away on the spot. She kept the letter in the bottom 
of her trunk, but she remembered that she had also kept Florentino 
Ariza's perfumed letters there, and she took it out of the chest to find 
another place for it, shaken by a rush of shame. Then it seemed that 
the most decent thing to do was to pretend she had not received it, 
and she burned it in the lamp, watching how the drops of wax 
exploded into blue bubbles above the flame. She sighed: "Poor man." 
And then she realized that it was the second time she had said those 
words in little more than a year, and for a moment she thought about 
Florentino Ariza, and even she was surprised at how removed he was 
from her life: poor man. 
Three more letters arrived with the last rains in October, the first of 

them accompanied by a little box of violet pastilles from Flavigny 

Abbey. Two had been delivered at the door by Dr. Juvenal Urbino's 

coachman, and the Doctor had greeted Gala Placidia from the carriage 

window, first so that there would be no doubt that the letters were his, 



and second so that no one could tell him they had not been received. 
Moreover, both of them were sealed with his monogram in wax and 
written in the cryptic scrawl that Fermina Daza already recognized as a 
physician's handwriting. Both of them said in substance what had been 
said in the first, and were conceived in the same submissive spirit, but 
underneath their propriety one could begin to detect an impatience 
that was never evident in the parsimonious letters of Florentino Ariza. 
Fermina Daza read them as soon as they were delivered, two weeks 
apart, and without knowing why, she changed her mind as she was 
about to throw them into the fire. But she never thought of answering 
them. 

The third letter in October had been slipped under the street door, and 
was in every way different from the previous ones. The handwriting 
was so childish that there was no doubt it had been scrawled with the 
left hand, but Fermina Daza did not realize that until the text itself 
proved to be a poison pen letter. Whoever had written it took for 
granted that Fermina Daza had bewitched Dr. Juvenal Urbino with her 
love potions, and from that supposition sinister conclusions had been 
drawn. It ended with a threat: if Fermina Daza did not renounce her 
efforts to move up in the world by means of the most desirable man in 
the city, she would be exposed to public disgrace. 
She felt herself the victim of a grave injustice, but her reaction was not 
vindictive. On the contrary: she would have liked to discover who the 
author of the anonymous letter was in order to convince him of his 
error with all the pertinent explanations, for she felt certain that never, 
for any reason, would she respond to the wooing of J uvenal Urbino. I n 
the days that followed she received two more unsigned letters, as 
perfidious as the first, but none of the three seemed to be written by 



the same person. Either she was the victim of a plot, or the false 
version of her secret love affair had gone further than anyone could 
imagine. She was disturbed by the idea that it was all the result of a 
simple indiscretion on the part of Juvenal Urbino. It occurred to her 
that perhaps he was different from his worthy appearance, that 
perhaps he talked too much when he was making house calls and 
boasted of imaginary conquests, as did so many other men of his 
class. She thought about writing him a letter to reproach him for the 
insult to her honor, but then she decided against the idea because that 
might be just what he wanted. She tried to learn more from the friends 
who painted with her in the sewing room, but they had heard only 
benign comments concerning the serenade by solo piano. She felt 
furious, impotent, humiliated. I n contrast to her initial feeling that she 
wanted to meet with her invisible enemy in order to convince him of 
his errors, now she only wanted to cut him to ribbons with the pruning 
shears. She spent sleepless nights analyzing details and phrases in the 
anonymous letters in the hope of finding some shred of comfort. It was 
a vain hope: Fermina Daza was, by nature, alien to the inner world of 
the Urbino de la Calle family, and she had weapons for defending 
herself from their good actions but not from their evil ones. 
This conviction became even more bitter after the fear caused by the 
black doll that was sent to her without any letter, but whose origin 
seemed easy to imagine: only Dr. Juvenal Urbino could have sent it. It 
had been bought in Martinique, according to the original tag, and it 
was dressed in an exquisite gown, its hair rippled with gold threads, 
and it closed its eyes when it was laid down. It seemed so charming to 
Fermina Daza that she overcame her scruples and laid it on her pillow 
during the day and grew accustomed to sleeping with it at night. After 



a time, however, she discovered when she awoke from an exhausting 

dream that the doll was growing: the original exquisite dress she had 

arrived in was up above her thighs, and her shoes had burst from the 

pressure of her feet. Fermina Daza had heard of African spells, but 

none as frightening as this. On the other hand, she could not imagine 

that a man like J uvenal Urbino would be capable of such an atrocity. 

She was right: the doll had been brought not by his coachman but by 

an itinerant shrimpmonger whom no one knew. Trying to solve the 

enigma, Fermina Daza thought for a moment of Florentino Ariza, 

whose depressed condition caused her dismay, but life convinced her 

of her error. The mystery was never clarified, and just thinking about 

it made her shudder with fear long after she was married and had 

children and thought of herself as destiny's darling: the happiest 

woman in the world. 

Dr. Urbino's last resort was the mediation of Sister Franca de la Luz, 
Superior of the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, who 
could not deny the request of a family that had supported her 
Community since its establishment in the Americas. She appeared one 
morning at nine o'clock in the company of a novice, and for half an 
hour the two of them had to amuse themselves with the birdcages 
while Fermina Daza finished her bath. She was a masculine German 
with a metallic accent and an imperious gaze that had no relationship 
to her puerile passions. Fermina Daza hated her and everything that 
had to do with her more than anything in this world, and the mere 
memory of her false piety made scorpions crawl in her belly. J ust the 
sight of her from the bathroom door was enough to revive the torture 
of school, the unbearable boredom of daily Mass, the terror of 
examinations, the servile diligence of the novices, all of that life 
distorted by the prism of spiritual poverty. Sister Franca de la Luz, on 
the other hand, greeted her with a joy that seemed sincere. She was 
surprised at how much she had grown and matured, and she praised 



the good judgment with which she managed the house, the good taste 
evident in the patio, the brazier filled with orange blossoms. She 
ordered the novice to wait for her without getting too close to the 
crows, who in a careless moment might peck out her eyes, and she 
looked for a private spot where she could sit down and talk alone with 
Fermina, who invited her into the drawing room. 
It was a brief and bitter visit. Sister Franca de la Luz, wasting no time 

on formalities, offered honorable reinstatement to Fermina Daza. The 

reason for her expulsion would be erased not only from the records but 

also from the memory of the Community, and this would allow her to 

finish her studies and receive her baccalaureate degree. Fermina Daza 

was perplexed and wanted to know why. 

"It is the request of someone who deserves everything he desires and 

whose only wish is to make you happy," said the nun. "Do you know 

who that is?" 

Then she understood. She asked herself with what authority a woman 

who had made her life miserable because of an innocent letter served 

as the emissary of love, but she did not dare to speak of it. Instead 

she said yes, she knew that man, and by the same token she also 

knew that he had no right to interfere in her life. 

"All he asks is that you allow him to speak with you for five minutes," 

said the nun. "I am certain your father will agree." 

Fermina Daza's anger grew more intense at the idea that her father 

was an accessory to the visit. 

"We saw each other twice when I was sick," she said. "Now there is no 

reason for us to see each other again." 

"For any woman with a shred of sense, that man is a gift from Divine 

Providence," said the nun. 

She continued to speak of his virtues, of his devotion, of his dedication 

to serving those in pain. As she spoke she pulled from her sleeve a 



gold rosary with Christ carved in marble, and dangled it in front of 

Fermina Daza's eyes. It was a family heirloom, more than a hundred 

years old, carved by a goldsmith from Siena and blessed by Clement 

IV. "It is yours," she said. 

Fermina Daza felt the blood pounding through her veins, and then she 

dared. 

"I do not understand how you can lend yourself to this," she said, "if 

you think that love is a sin." 

Sister Franca de la Luz pretended not to notice the remark, but her 

eyelids flamed. She continued to dangle the rosary in front of Fermina 

Daza's eyes. 

"It would be better for you to come to an understanding with me," she 
said, "because after me comes His Grace the Archbishop, and it is a 
different story with him." 
"Let him come," said Fermina Daza. 

Sister Franca de la Luz tucked the gold rosary into her sleeve. Then 

from the other she took a well-used handkerchief squeezed into a ball 

and held it tight in her fist, looking at Fermina Daza from a great 

distance and with a smile of commiseration. 

"My poor child," she sighed, "you are still thinking about that man." 

Fermina Daza chewed on the impertinence as she looked at the nun 

without blinking, looked her straight in the eye without speaking, 

chewing in silence, until she saw with infinite satisfaction that those 

masculine eyes had filled with tears. Sister Franca de la Luz dried 

them with the ball of the handkerchief and stood up. 

"Your father is right when he says that you are a mule," she said. 

The Archbishop did not come. So the siege might have ended that day 

if Hildebranda Sanchez had not arrived to spend Christmas with her 

cousin, and life changed for both of them. They met her on the 



schooner from Riohacha at five o'clock in the morning, surrounded by 
a crowd of passengers half dead from seasickness, but she walked off 
the boat radiant, very much a woman, and excited after the bad night 
at sea. She arrived with crates of live turkeys and all the fruits of her 
fertile lands so that no one would lack for food during her visit. 
Lisimaco Sanchez, her father, sent a message asking if they needed 
musicians for their holiday parties, because he had the best at his 
disposal, and he promised to send a load of fireworks later on. He also 
announced that he could not come for his daughter before March, so 
there was plenty of time for them to enjoy life. The two cousins began 
at once. From the first afternoon they bathed together, naked, the two 
of them making their reciprocal ablutions with water from the cistern. 
They soaped each other, they removed each other's nits, they 
compared their buttocks, their quiet breasts, each looking at herself in 
the other's mirror to judge with what cruelty time had treated them 
since the last occasion when they had seen each other undressed. 
Hildebranda was large and solid, with golden skin, but all the hair on 
her body was like a mulatta's, as short and curly as steel wool. 
Fermina Daza, on the other hand, had a pale nakedness, with long 
lines, serene skin, and straight hair. Gala Placidia had two identical 
beds placed in the bedroom, but at times they lay together in one and 
talked in the dark until dawn. They smoked long, thin highwaymen's 
cigars that Hildebranda had hidden in the lining of her trunk, and 
afterward they had to burn Armenian paper to purify the rank smell 
they left behind in the bedroom. Fermina Daza had smoked for the 
first time in Valledupar, and had continued in Fonseca and Riohacha, 
where as many as ten cousins would lock themselves in a room to talk 
about men and to smoke. She learned to smoke backward, with the lit 



end in her mouth, the way men smoked at night during the wars so 
that the glow of their cigarettes would not betray them. But she had 
never smoked alone. With Hildebranda in her house, she smoked 
every night before going to sleep, and it was then that she acquired 
the habit although she always hid it, even from her husband and her 
children, not only because it was thought improper for a woman to 
smoke in public but because she associated the pleasure with secrecy. 
Hildebranda's trip had also been imposed by her parents in an effort to 
put distance between her and her impossible love, although they 
wanted her to think that it was to help Fermina decide on a good 
match. Hildebranda had accepted, hoping to mock forgetfulness as her 
cousin had done before her, and she had arranged with the telegraph 
operator in Fonseca to send her messages with the greatest prudence. 
And that is why her disillusion was so bitter when she learned that 
Fermina Daza had rejected Florentino Ariza. Moreover, Hildebranda 
had a universal conception of love, and she believed that whatever 
happened to one love affected all other loves throughout the world. 
Still, she did not renounce her plan. With an audacity that caused a 
crisis of dismay in Fermina Daza, she went to the telegraph office 
alone, intending to win the favor of Florentino Ariza. 
She would not have recognized him, for there was nothing about him 
that corresponded to the image she had formed from Fermina Daza. At 
first glance it seemed impossible that her cousin could have been on 
the verge of madness because of that almost invisible clerk with his air 
of a whipped dog, whose clothing, worthy of a rabbi in disgrace, and 
whose solemn manner could not perturb anyone's heart. But she soon 
repented of her first impression, for Florentino Ariza placed himself at 
her unconditional service without knowing who she was: he never 



found out. No one could have understood her as he did, so that he did 
not ask for identification or even for her address. His solution was very 
simple: she would pass by the telegraph office on Wednesday 
afternoons so that he could place her lover's answers in her hand, and 
nothing more. And yet when he read the written message that 
Hildebranda brought him, he asked if she would accept a suggestion, 
and she agreed. Florentino Ariza first made some corrections between 
the lines, erased them, rewrote them, had no more room, and at last 
tore up the page and wrote a completely new message that she 
thought very touching. When she left the telegraph office, Hildebranda 
was on the verge of tears. 

"He is ugly and sad," she said to Fermina Daza, "but he is all love." 
What most struck Hildebranda was her cousin's solitude. She seemed, 
she told her, an old maid of twenty. Accustomed to large scattered 
families in houses where no one was certain how many people were 
living or eating at any given time, Hildebranda could not imagine a girl 
her age reduced to the cloister of a private life. That was true: from 
the time she awoke at six in the morning until she turned out the light 
in the bedroom, Fermina Daza devoted herself to killing time. Life was 
imposed on her from outside. First, at the final rooster crow, the 
milkman woke her with his rapping on the door knocker. Then came 
the knock of the fishwife with her box of red snappers dying on a bed 
of algae, the sumptuous fruit sellers with vegetables from Maria la 
Baja and fruit from San J acinto. And then, for the rest of the day, 
everyone knocked at the door: beggars, girls with lottery tickets, the 
Sisters of Charity, the knife grinder with the gossip, the man who 
bought bottles, the man who bought old gold, the man who bought 
newspapers, the fake gypsies who offered to read one's destiny in 



cards, in the lines of one's palm, in coffee grounds, in the water in 
washbasins. Gala Placidia spent the week opening and closing the 
street door to say no, another day, or shouting from the balcony in a 
foul humor to stop bothering us, damn it, we already bought 
everything we need. She had replaced Aunt Escolastica with so much 
fervor and so much grace that Fermina confused them to the point of 
loving her. She had the obsessions of a slave. Whenever she had free 
time she would go to the workroom to iron the linens; she kept them 
perfect, she kept them in cupboards with lavender, and she ironed and 
folded not only what she had just washed but also what might have 
lost its brightness through disuse. With the same care she continued to 
maintain the wardrobe of Fermina Sanchez, Fermina's mother, who 
had died fourteen years before. But Fermina Daza was the one who 
made the decisions. She ordered what they would eat, what they 
would buy, what had to be done in every circumstance, and in that 
way she determined the life in a house where in reality nothing had to 
be determined. When she finished washing the cages and feeding the 
birds, and making certain that the flowers wanted for nothing, she was 
at a loss. Often, after she was expelled from school, she would fall 
asleep at siesta and not wake up until the next day. The painting 
classes were only a more amusing way to kill time. 
Her relationship with her father had lacked affection since the 
expulsion of Aunt Escolastica, although they had found the way to live 
together without bothering each other. When she awoke, he had 
already gone to his business. He rarely missed the ritual of lunch, 
although he almost never ate, for the aperitifs and Galician appetizers 
at the Parish Cafe satisfied him. He did not eat supper either: they left 
his meal on the table, everything on one plate covered by another, 



although they knew that he would not eat it until the next day when it 
was reheated for his breakfast. Once a week he gave his daughter 
money for expenses, which he calculated with care and she 
administered with rigor, but he listened with pleasure to any request 
she might make for unforeseen expenses. He never questioned a 
penny she spent, he never asked her for any explanations, but she 
behaved as if she had to make an accounting before the Tribunal of 
the Holy Office. He had never spoken to her about the nature or 
condition of his business, and he had never taken her to his offices in 
the port, which were in a location forbidden to decent young ladies 
even if accompanied by their fathers. Lorenzo Daza did not come home 
before ten o'clock at night, which was the curfew hour during the less 
critical periods of the wars. Until that time he would stay at the Parish 
Cafe, playing one game or another, for he was an expert in all salon 
games and a good teacher as well. He always came home sober, not 
disturbing his daughter, despite the fact that he had his first anisette 
when he awoke and continued chewing the end of his unlit cigar and 
drinking at regular intervals throughout the day. One night, however, 
Fermina heard him come in. She heard his cossack's step on the stair, 
his heavy breathing in the second-floor hallway, his pounding with the 
flat of his hand on her bedroom door. She opened it, and for the first 
time she was frightened by his twisted eye and the slurring of his 
words. 

"We are ruined," he said. "Total ruin, so now you know." 
That was all he said, and he never said it again, and nothing happened 
to indicate whether he had told the truth, but after that night Fermina 
Daza knew that she was alone in the world. She lived in a social limbo. 
Her former schoolmates were in a heaven that was closed to her, 



above all after the dishonor of her expulsion, and she was not a 
neighbor to her neighbors, because they had known her without a past, 
in the uniform of the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed 
Virgin. Her father's world was one of traders and stevedores, of war 
refugees in the public shelter of the Parish Cafe, of solitary men. I n 
the last year the painting classes had alleviated her seclusion 
somewhat, for the teacher preferred group classes and would bring the 
other pupils to the sewing room. But they were girls of varying and 
undefined social circumstances, and for Fermina Daza they were no 
more than borrowed friends whose affection ended with each class. 
Hildebranda wanted to open the house, air it, bring in her father's 
musicians and fireworks and castles of gunpowder, and have a 
Carnival dance whose gale winds would clear out her cousin's 
moth-eaten spirit, but she soon realized that her proposals were to no 
avail, and for a very simple reason: there was no one to invite. 
I n any case, it was she who thrust Fermina Daza into life. I n the 
afternoon, after the painting classes, she allowed herself to be taken 
out to see the city. Fermina Daza showed her the route she had taken 
every day with Aunt Escolastica, the bench in the little park where 
Florentino Ariza pretended to read while he waited for her, the narrow 
streets along which he followed her, the hiding places for their letters, 
the sinister palace where the prison of the Holy Office had been 
located, later restored and converted into the Academy of the 
Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, which she hated with all her soul. 
They climbed the hill of the paupers' cemetery, where Florentino Ariza 
played the violin according to the direction of the winds so that she 
could listen to him in bed, and from there they viewed the entire 
historic city, the broken roofs and the decaying walls, the rubble of 



fortresses among the brambles, the trail of islands in the bay, the 

hovels of the poor around the swamps, the immense Caribbean. 

On Christmas Eve they went to Midnight Mass in the Cathedral. 
Fermina sat where she used to hear Florentino Ariza's confidential 
music with greatest clarity, and she showed her cousin the exact spot 
where, on a night like this, she had seen his frightened eyes up close 
for the first time. They ventured alone as far as the Arcade of the 
Scribes, they bought sweets, they were amused in the shop that sold 
fancy paper, and Fermina Daza showed her cousin the place where she 
suddenly discovered that her love was nothing more than an illusion. 
She herself had not realized that every step she took from her house 
to school, every spot in the city, every moment of her recent past, did 
not seem to exist except by the grace of Florentino Ariza. Hildebranda 
pointed this out to her, but she did not admit it because she never 
would have admitted that Florentino Ariza, for better or for worse, was 
the only thing that had ever happened to her in her life. 
It was during this time that a Belgian photographer came to the city 

and set up his studio at the end of the Arcade of the Scribes, and all 

those with the money to pay took advantage of the opportunity to 

have their pictures taken. Fermina and Hildebranda were among the 

first. They emptied Fermina Sanchez's clothes closet, they shared the 

finest dresses, the parasols, the party shoes, the hats, and they 

dressed as midcentury ladies. Gala Placidia helped them lace up the 

corsets, she showed them how to move inside the wire frames of the 

hoop skirts, how to wear the gloves, how to button the high-heeled 

boots. Hildebranda preferred a broad-brimmed hat with ostrich 

feathers that hung down over her shoulder. Fermina wore a more 

recent model decorated with painted plaster fruit and crinoline flowers. 

At last they giggled when they looked in the mirror and saw the 

resemblance to the daguerreotypes of their grandmothers, and they 



went off happy, laughing for all they were worth, to have the 
photograph of their lives taken. Gala Placidia watched from the 
balcony as they crossed the park with their parasols open, tottering on 
their high heels and pushing against the hoop skirts with their bodies 
as if they were children's walkers, and she gave them her blessing so 
that God would help them in their portraits. 

There was a mob in front of the Belgian's studio because photographs 
were being taken of Beny Centeno, who had won the boxing 
championship in Panama. He wore his boxing trunks and his boxing 
gloves and his crown, and it was not easy to photograph him because 
he had to hold a fighting stance for a whole minute and breathe as 
little as possible, but as soon as he put up his guard, his fans burst into 
cheers and he could not resist the temptation to please them by 
showing off his skill. When it was the cousins' turn, the sky had 
clouded over and rain seemed imminent, but they allowed their faces 
to be powdered with starch and they leaned against an alabaster 
column with such ease that they remained motionless for more time 
than seemed reasonable. It was an immortal portrait. When 
Hildebranda died on her ranch at Flores de Maria, when she was 
almost one hundred years old, they found her copy locked in the 
bedroom closet, hidden among the folds of the perfumed sheets along 
with the fossil of a thought in a letter that had faded with time. For 
many years Fermina Daza kept hers on the first page of a family 
album, then it disappeared without anyone's knowing how, or when, 
and came into the possession of Florentino Ariza, through a series of 
unbelievable coincidences, when they were both over sixty years old. 
When Fermina and Hildebranda came out of the Belgian's studio, there 
were so many people in the plaza across from the Arcade of the 



Scribes that even the balconies were crowded. They had forgotten that 
their faces were white with starch and that their lips were painted with 
a chocolate-colored salve and that their clothes were not appropriate 
to the time of day or the age. The street greeted them with catcalls 
and mockery. They were cornered, trying to escape public derision, 
when the landau drawn by the golden chestnuts opened a path through 
the crowd. The catcalls ceased and the hostile groups dispersed. 
Hildebranda was never to forget her first sight of the man who 
appeared on the footboard: his satin top hat, his brocaded vest, his 
knowing gestures, the sweetness in his eyes, the authority of his 
presence. 

Although she had never seen him before, she recognized him 
immediately. The previous month, Fermina Daza had spoken about 
him, in an offhand way and with no sign of interest, one afternoon 
when she did not want to pass by the house of the Marquis de 
Casalduero because the landau with the golden horses was stopped in 
front of the door. She told her who the owner was and attempted to 
explain the reasons for her antipathy, although she did not say a word 
about his courting her. Hildebranda thought no more about him. But 
when she identified him as a vision out of legend, standing in the 
carriage door with one foot on the ground and the other on the 
footboard, she could not understand her cousin's motives. 
"Please get in," said Dr. Juvenal Urbino. "I will take you wherever you 
want to go." Fermina Daza began a gesture of refusal, but Hildebranda 
had already accepted. Dr. Juvenal Urbino jumped down, and with his 
fingertips, almost without touching her, he helped her into the 
carriage. Fermina had no alternative but to climb in after her, her face 
blazing with embarrassment. 



The house was only three blocks away. The cousins did not realize that 
Dr. Urbino had given instructions to the coachman, but he must have 
done so, because it took the carriage almost half an hour to reach its 
destination. The girls were on the principal seat and he sat opposite 
them, facing, the back of the carriage. Fermina turned her head 
toward the window and was lost in the void. Hildebranda, on the other 
hand, was delighted, and Dr. Urbino was even more delighted by her 
delight. As soon as the carriage began to move, she sensed the warm 
odor of the leather seats, the intimacy of the padded interior, and she 
said that it seemed a nice place to spend the rest of one's life. Very 
soon they began to laugh, to exchange jokes as if they were old 
friends, and they began to match wits in a simple word game that 
consisted of placing a nonsense syllable after every other syllable. 
They pretended that Fermina did not understand them, although they 
knew she not only understood but was listening as well, which is why 
they did it. After much laughter, Hildebranda confessed that she could 
no longer endure the torture of her boots. 

"Nothing could be simpler," said Dr. Urbino. "Let us see who finishes 
first." 

He began to unlace his own boots, and Hildebranda accepted the 
challenge. It was not easy for her to do because the stays in the corset 
did not allow her to bend, but Dr. Urbino dallied until she took her 
boots out from under her skirt with a triumphant laugh, as if she had 
just fished them out of a pond. Then both of them looked at Fermina 
and saw her magnificent golden oriole's profile sharper than ever 
against the blaze of the setting sun. She was furious for three reasons: 
because of the undeserved situation in which she found herself, 
because of Hildebranda's libertine behavior, and because she was 



certain that the carriage was driving in circles in order to postpone 

their arrival. But Hildebranda had lost all restraint. 

"Now I realize," she said, "that what bothered me was not my shoes 

but this wire cage." 

Dr. Urbino understood that she was referring to her hoop skirt, and he 

seized the opportunity as it flew by. "Nothing could be simpler," he 

said. "Take it off." With the rapid movements of a prestidigitator, he 

removed his handkerchief from his pocket and covered his eyes with 

it. 

"I won't look," he said. 

The blindfold emphasized the purity of his lips surrounded by his round 

black beard and his mustache with the waxed tips, and she felt herself 

shaken by a sudden surge of panic. She looked at Fermina, and now 

she saw that she was not furious but terrified that she might be 

capable of taking off her skirt. Hildebranda became serious and asked 

her in sign language: "What shall we do?" Fermina answered in the 

same code that if they did not go straight home she would throw 

herself out of the moving carriage. 

"I am waiting," said the Doctor. 

"You can look now," said Hildebranda. 

When Dr. Juvenal Urbino removed the blindfold he found her changed, 

and he understood that the game had ended, and had not ended well. 

At a sign from him, the coachman turned the carriage around and 

drove into the Park of the Evangels, just as the lamplighter was 

making his rounds. All the churches were ringing the Angelus. 

Hildebranda hurried out of the carriage, somewhat disturbed at the 

idea that she had offended her cousin, and she said goodbye to the 

Doctor with a perfunctory handshake. Fermina did the same, but when 



she tried to withdraw her hand in its satin glove, Dr. Urbino squeezed 

her ring finger. 

"I am waiting for your answer," he said. 

Then Fermina pulled harder and her empty glove was left dangling in 

the Doctor's hand, but she did not wait to retrieve it. She went to bed 

without eating. Hildebranda, as if nothing had happened, came into the 

bedroom after her supper with Gala Placidia in the kitchen, and with 

her inborn wit, commented on the events of the afternoon. She did not 

attempt to hide her enthusiasm for Dr. Urbino, for his elegance and 

charm, and Fermina refused to comment, but was brimming with 

anger. At one point Hildebranda confessed that when Dr. J uvenal 

Urbino covered his eyes and she saw the splendor of his perfect teeth 

between his rosy lips, she had felt an irresistible desire to devour him 

with kisses. Fermina Daza turned to the wall and with no wish to 

offend, but smiling and with all her heart, put an end to the 

conversation: 

"What a whore you are!" she said. 

Her sleep was restless; she saw Dr. Juvenal Urbino everywhere, she 

saw him laughing, 

singing, emitting sulfurous sparks from between his teeth with his eyes 

blindfolded, mocking her with a word game that had no fixed rules, 

driving up to the paupers' cemetery in a different carriage. She awoke 

long before dawn and lay exhausted and wakeful, with her eyes 

closed, thinking of the countless years she still had to live. Later, while 

Hildebranda was bathing, she wrote a letter as quickly as possible, 

folded it as quickly as possible, put it in an envelope as quickly as 

possible, and before Hildebranda came out of the bathroom she had 

Gala Placidia deliver it to Dr. J uvenal Urbino. It was one of her typical 



letters, not a syllable too many or too few, in which she told the Doctor 
yes, he could speak to her father. 

When Florentino Ariza learned that Fermina Daza was going to marry a 
physician with family and fortune, educated in Europe and with an 
extraordinary reputation for a man of his years, there was no power 
on earth that could raise him from his prostration. Transito Ariza did all 
she could and more, using all the stratagems of a sweetheart to 
console him when she realized that he had lost his speech and his 
appetite and was spending nights on end in constant weeping, and by 
the end of the week he was eating again. Then she spoke to Don Leo 
XI I Loayza, the only one of the three brothers who was still alive, and 
without telling him the reason, she pleaded with him to give his 
nephew any job at all in the navigation company, as long as it was in a 
port lost in the jungle of the Magdalena, where there was no mail and 
no telegraph and no one who would tell him anything about this 
damnable city. His uncle did not give him the job out of deference to 
his brother's widow, for she could not bear the very existence of her 
husband's illegitimate son, but he did find him employment as a 
telegraph operator in Villa de Leyva, a dreamy city more than twenty 
days' journey away and almost three thousand meters above the level 
of the Street of Windows. 

Florentino Ariza was never very conscious of that curative journey. He 
would remember it always, as he remembered everything that 
happened during that period, through the rarefied lenses of his 
misfortune. When he received the telegram informing him of his 
appointment, it did not even occur to him to consider it, but Lotario 
Thugut convinced him with Germanic arguments that a brilliant career 
awaited him in public administration. He told him: "The telegraph is 



the profession of the future." He gave him a pair of gloves lined with 
rabbit fur, a hat worthy of the steppes, and an overcoat with a plush 
collar, tried and proven in the icy winters of Bavaria. Uncle Leo XII 
gave him two serge suits and a pair of waterproof boots that had 
belonged to his older brother, and he also gave him cabin passage on 
the next boat. Transito Ariza altered the clothing and made it smaller 
for her son, who was less corpulent than his father and much shorter 
than the German, and she bought him woolen socks and long 
underwear so that he would have everything he needed to resist the 
rigors of the mountain wastelands. Florentino Ariza, hardened by so 
much suffering, attended to the preparations for his journey as if he 
were a dead man attending to the preparations for his own funeral. 
The same iron hermeticism with which he had revealed to no one but 
his mother the secret of his repressed passion meant that he did not 
tell anyone he was going away and did not say goodbye to anyone, but 
on the eve of his departure he committed, with full awareness, a final 
mad act of the heart that might well have cost him his life. At midnight 
he put on his Sunday suit and went to stand alone under Fermina 
Daza's balcony to play the love waltz he had composed for her, which 
was known only to the two of them and which for three years had been 
the emblem of their frustrated complicity. He played, murmuring the 
words, his violin bathed in tears, with an inspiration so intense that 
with the first measures the dogs on the street and then the dogs all 
over the city began to howl, but then, little by little, they were quieted 
by the spell of the music, and the waltz ended in supernatural silence. 
The balcony did not open, and no one appeared on the street, not even 
the night watchman, who almost always came running with his oil lamp 
in an effort to profit in some small way from serenades. The act was 



an exorcism of relief for Florentino Ariza, for when he put the violin 
back into its case and walked down the dead streets without looking 
back, he no longer felt that he was leaving the next morning but that 
he had gone away many years before with the irrevocable 
determination never to return. 

The boat, one of three identical vessels belonging to the River 
Company of the Caribbean, had been renamed in honor of the 
founder: Pius V Loayza. It was a floating two-story wooden house on a 
wide, level iron hull, and its maximum draft of five feet allowed it to 
negotiate the variable depths of the river. The older boats had been 
built in Cincinnati in midcentury on the legendary model of the vessels 
that traveled the Ohio and the Mississippi, with a wheel on each side 
powered by a wood-fed boiler. Like them, the boats of the River 
Company of the Caribbean had a lower deck almost level with the 
water, with the steam engines and the galleys and the sleeping 
quarters like henhouses where the crew hung their hammocks 
crisscrossed at different heights. On the upper deck were the bridge, 
the cabins of the Captain and his officers, and a recreation and dining 
room, where notable passengers were invited at least once to have 
dinner and play cards. On the middle deck were six first-class cabins 
on either side of a passage that served as a common dining room, and 
in the prow was a sitting room open to the river, with carved wood 
railings and iron columns, where most of the passengers hung their 
hammocks at night. Unlike the older boats, these did not have paddle 
wheels at the sides; instead, there was an enormous wheel with 
horizontal paddles at the stern, just underneath the suffocating toilets 
on the passenger deck. Florentino Ariza had not taken the trouble to 
explore the boat when he came aboard on a Sunday in July at seven 



o'clock in the morning, as those traveling for the first time did almost 
by instinct. He became aware of his new milieu only at dusk, as they 
were sailing past the hamlet of Calamar, when he went to the stern to 
urinate and saw, through the opening in the toilet, the gigantic paddle 
wheel turning under his feet with a volcanic display of foam and 
steam. 

He had never traveled before. He had with him a tin trunk with his 
clothes for the mountain wastelands, the illustrated novels that he 
bought in pamphlet form every month and that he himself sewed into 
cardboard covers, and the books of love poetry that he recited from 
memory and that were about to crumble into dust with so much 
reading. He had left behind his violin, for he identified it too closely 
with his misfortune, but his mother had obliged him to take his petate, 
a very popular and practical bedroll, with its pillow, sheet, small 
pewter chamber pot, and mosquito netting, all of this wrapped in straw 
matting tied with two hemp ropes for hanging a hammock in an 
emergency. Florentino Ariza had not wanted to take it, for he thought 
it would be useless in a cabin that provided bed and bedclothes, but 
from the very first night he had reason once again to be grateful for 
his mother's good sense. At the last moment, a passenger dressed in 
evening clothes boarded the boat; he had arrived early that morning 
on a ship from Europe and was accompanied by the Provincial 
Governor himself. He wanted to continue his journey without delay, 
along with his wife and daughter and liveried servant and seven trunks 
with gold fittings, which were almost too bulky for the stairway. To 
accommodate the unexpected travelers, the Captain, a giant from 
Curagao, called on the passengers' indigenous sense of patriotism. In a 
jumble of Spanish and Curagao patois, he explained to Florentino Ariza 



that the man in evening dress was the new plenipotentiary from 
England, on his way to the capital of the Republic; he reminded him of 
how that kingdom had provided us with decisive resources in our 
struggle for independence from Spanish rule, and that as a 
consequence no sacrifice was too great if it would allow a family of 
such distinction to feel more at home in our country than in their own. 
Florentino Ariza, of course, gave up his cabin. 

At first he did not regret it, for the river was high at that time of year 
and the boat navigated without any difficulty for the first two nights. 
After dinner, at five o'clock, the crew distributed folding canvas cots to 
the passengers, and each person opened his bed wherever he could 
find room, arranged it with the bedclothes from his petate, and set the 
mosquito netting over that. Those with hammocks hung them in the 
salon, and those who had nothing slept on the tables in the dining 
room, wrapped in the tablecloths that were not changed more than 
twice during the trip. Florentino Ariza was awake most of the night, 
thinking that he heard the voice of Fermina Daza in the fresh river 
breeze, ministering to his solitude with her memory, hearing her sing 
in the respiration of the boat as it moved like a great animal through 
the darkness, until the first rosy streaks appeared on the horizon and 
the new day suddenly broke over deserted pastureland and misty 
swamps. Then his journey seemed yet another proof of his mother's 
wisdom, and he felt that he had the fortitude to endure forgetting. 
After three days of favorable water, however, it became more difficult 
to navigate between inopportune sandbanks and deceptive rapids. The 
river turned muddy and grew narrower and narrower in a tangled 
jungle of colossal trees where there was only an occasional straw hut 
next to the piles of wood for the ship's boilers. The screeching of the 



parrots and the chattering of the invisible monkeys seemed to intensify 
the midday heat. At night it was necessary to anchor the boat in order 
to sleep, and then the simple fact of being alive became unendurable. 
To the heat and the mosquitoes was added the reek of strips of salted 
meat hung to dry on the railings. Most of the passengers, above all the 
Europeans, abandoned the pestilential stench of their cabins and spent 
the night walking the decks, brushing away all sorts of predatory 
creatures with the same towel they used to dry their incessant 
perspiration, and at dawn they were exhausted and swollen with bites. 
Moreover, another episode of the intermittent civil war between 
Liberals and Conservatives had broken out that year, and the Captain 
had taken very strict precautions to maintain internal order and protect 
the safety of the passengers. Trying to avoid misunderstandings and 
provocations, he prohibited the favorite pastime during river voyages 
in those days, which was to shoot the alligators sunning themselves on 
the broad sandy banks. Later on, when some of the passengers divided 
into two opposing camps during an argument, he confiscated 
everyone's weapons and gave his word of honor that they would be 
returned at the end of the journey. He was inflexible even with the 
British minister who, on the morning following their departure, 
appeared in a hunting outfit, with a precision carbine and a 
double-barreled rifle for killing tigers. The restrictions became even 
more drastic above the port of Tenerife, where they passed a boat 
flying the yellow plague flag. The Captain could not obtain any further 
information regarding that alarming sign because the other vessel did 
not respond to his signals. But that same day they encountered 
another boat, with a cargo of cattle for J amaica, and were informed 
that the vessel with the plague flag was carrying two people sick with 



cholera, and that the epidemic was wreaking havoc along the portion 

of the river they still had to travel. Then the passengers were 

prohibited from leaving the boat, not only in the ports but even in the 

uninhabited places where they stopped to take on wood. So that until 

they reached the final port, a trip of six days, the passengers acquired 

the habits of prisoners, including the pernicious contemplation of a 

packet of pornographic Dutch postcards that circulated from hand to 

hand without anyone's knowing where it came from, although no 

veteran of the river was unaware that this was only a tiny sampling of 

the Captain's legendary collection. But, in the end, even that 

distraction with no expectation only increased the tedium. 

Florentino Ariza endured the hardships of the journey -with the mineral 

patience that had brought sorrow to his mother and exasperation to his 

friends. He spoke to no one. The days were easy for him as he sat at 

the rail, watching the motionless alligators sunning themselves on 

sandy banks, their mouths open to catch butterflies, watching the 

flocks of startled herons that rose without warning from the marshes, 

the manatees that nursed their young at large maternal teats and 

startled the passengers with their woman's cries. On a single day he 

saw three bloated, green, human corpses float past, with buzzards 

sitting on them. First the bodies of two men went by, one of them 

without a head, and then a very young girl, whose medusan locks 

undulated in the boat's wake. He never knew, because no one ever 

knew, if they were victims of the cholera or the war, but the 

nauseating stench contaminated his memory of Fermina Daza. 

That was always the case: any event, good or bad, had some 
relationship to her. At night, when the boat was anchored and most of 
the passengers walked the decks in despair, he perused the illustrated 



novels he knew almost by heart under the carbide lamp in the dining 
room, which was the only one kept burning until dawn, and the dramas 
he had read so often regained their original magic when he replaced 
the imaginary protagonists with people he knew in real life, reserving 
for himself and Fermina Daza the roles of star-crossed lovers. On other 
nights he wrote anguished letters and then scattered their fragments 
over the water that flowed toward her without pause. And so the most 
difficult hours passed for him, at times in the person of a timid prince 
or a paladin of love, at other times in his own scalded hide of a lover 
in the middle of forgetting, until the first breezes began to blow and he 
went to doze in the lounge chairs by the railing. 
One night when he stopped his reading earlier than usual and was 

walking, distracted, toward the toilets, a door opened as he passed 

through the dining room, and a hand like the talon of a hawk seized 

him by the shirt sleeve and pulled him into a cabin. In the darkness he 

could barely see the naked woman, her ageless body soaked in hot 

perspiration, her breathing heavy, who pushed him onto the bunk face 

up, unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his trousers, impaled herself on him 

as if she were riding horseback, and stripped him, without glory, of his 

virginity. Both of them fell, in an agony of desire, into the void of a 

bottomless pit that smelled of a salt marsh full of prawns. Then she lay 

for a moment on top of him, gasping for breath, and she ceased to 

exist in the darkness. 

"Now go and forget all about it," she said. "This never happened." 

The assault had been so rapid and so triumphant that it could only be 

understood not as a sudden madness caused by boredom but as the 

fruit of a plan elaborated over time and down to its smallest detail. 

This gratifying certainty increased Florentino Ariza's eagerness, for at 

the height of pleasure he had experienced a revelation that he could 

not believe, that he even refused to admit, which was that his illusory 



love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion. And so 
it was that he felt compelled to discover the identity of the mistress of 
violation in whose panther's instincts he might find the cure for his 
misfortune. But he was not successful. On the contrary, the more he 
delved into the search the further he felt from the truth. 
The assault had taken place in the last cabin, but this communicated 
with the one next to it by a door, so that the two rooms had been 
converted into family sleeping quarters with four bunks. The occupants 
were two young women, another who was rather mature but very 
attractive, and an infant a few months old. They had boarded in 
Barranco de Loba, the port where cargo and passengers from Mompox 
were picked up ever since that city had been excluded from the 
itineraries of the steamboats because of the river's caprices, and 
Florentino Ariza had noticed them only because they carried the 
sleeping child in a large birdcage. 

They dressed as if they were traveling on a fashionable ocean liner, 
with bustles under their silk skirts and lace gorgets and broad-brimmed 
hats trimmed with crinoline flowers, and the two younger women 
changed their entire outfits several times a day, so that they seemed 
to carry with them their own springlike ambience while the other 
passengers were suffocating in the heat. All three were skilled in the 
use of parasols and feathered fans, but their intentions were as 
indecipherable as those of other women from Mompox. Florentino Anza 
could not even determine their relationship to one another, although 
he had no doubt they came from the same family. At first he thought 
that the older one might be the mother of the other two, but then he 
realized she was not old enough for that, and that she also wore partial 
mourning that the others did not share. He could not imagine that one 



of them would have dared to do what she did while the others were 
sleeping in the nearby bunks, and the only reasonable supposition was 
that she had taken advantage of a fortuitous, or perhaps prearranged, 
moment when she was alone in the cabin. He observed that at times 
two of them stayed out for a breath of cool air until very late, while 
the third remained behind, caring for the infant, but one night when it 
was very hot all three of them left the cabin, carrying the baby, who 
was asleep in the wicker cage covered with gauze. 
Despite the tangle of clues, Florentino Ariza soon rejected the 
possibility that the oldest had been the perpetrator of the assault, and 
with as much dispatch he also absolved the youngest, who was the 
most beautiful and the boldest of the three. He did so without valid 
reasons, but only because his avid observations of the three women 
had persuaded him to accept as truth the profound hope that his 
sudden lover was in fact the mother of the caged infant. That 
supposition was so seductive that he began to think about her with 
more intensity than he thought about Fermina Daza, ignoring the 
evidence that this recent mother lived only for her child. She was no 
more than twenty-five, she was slender and golden, she had 
Portuguese eyelids that made her seem even more aloof, and any man 
would have been satisfied with only the crumbs of the tenderness that 
she lavished on her son. From breakfast until bedtime she was busy 
with him in the salon, while the other two played Chinese checkers, 
and when at last she managed to put him to sleep she would hang the 
wicker cage from the ceiling on the cooler side of the railing. She did 
not ignore him, however, even when he was asleep, but would rock 
the cage, singing love songs under her breath while her thoughts flew 
high above the miseries of the journey. Florentino Ariza clung to the 



illusion that sooner or later she would betray herself, if only 

with a gesture. He even observed the changes in her breathing, 

watching the reliquary that hung on her batiste blouse as he looked at 

her without dissimulation over the book he pretended to read, and he 

committed the calculated impertinence of changing his seat in the 

dining room so that he would face her. But he could not find the 

slightest hint that she was in fact the repository of the other half of his 

secret. The only thing of hers he had, and that only because her 

younger companion called to her, was her first name: Rosalba. 

On the eighth day, the boat navigated with great difficulty through a 

turbulent strait squeezed between marble cliffs, and after lunch it 

anchored in Puerto Nare. This was the disembarkation point for those 

passengers who would continue their journey into Antioquia, one of the 

provinces most affected by the new civil war. The port consisted of half 

a dozen palm huts and a store made of wood, with a zinc roof, and it 

was protected by several squads of barefoot and ill-armed soldiers 

because there-had been rumors of a plan by the insurrectionists to 

plunder the boats. Behind the houses, reaching to the sky, rose a 

promontory of uncultivated highland with a wrought-iron cornice at the 

edge of the precipice. No one on board slept well that night, but the 

attack did not materialize, and in the morning the port was 

transformed into a Sunday fair, with Indians selling Tagua amulets and 

love potions amid packs of animals ready to begin the six-day ascent 

to the orchid jungles of the central mountain range. 

Florentino Ariza passed the time watching black men unload the boat 
onto their backs, he watched them carry off crates of china, and pianos 
for the spinsters of Envigado, and he did not realize until it was too 
late that Rosalba and her party were among the passengers who had 
stayed on shore. He saw them when they were already sitting 



sidesaddle, with their Amazons' boots and their parasols in equatorial 
colors, and then he took the step he had not dared to take during, the 
preceding days: he waved goodbye to Rosalba, and the three women 
responded in kind, with a familiarity that cut him to the quick because 
his boldness came too late. He saw them round the corner of the store, 
followed by the mules carrying their trunks, their hatboxes, and the 
baby's cage, and soon afterward he saw them ascend along the edge 
of the precipice like a line of ants and disappear from his life. Then he 
felt alone in the world, and the memory of Fermina Daza, lying in 
ambush in recent days, dealt him a mortal blow. 
He knew that she was to have an elaborate wedding, and then the 

being who loved her most, who would love her forever, would not 

even have the right to die for her. J ealousy, which until that time had 

been drowned in weeping, took possession of his soul. He prayed to 

God that the lightning of divine justice would strike Fermina Daza as 

she was about to give her vow of love and obedience to a man who 

wanted her for his wife only as a social adornment, and he went into 

rapture at the vision of the bride, his bride or no one's, lying face up 

on the flagstones of the Cathedral, her orange blossoms laden with the 

dew of death, and the foaming torrent of her veil covering the 

funerary marbles of the fourteen bishops who were buried in front of 

the main altar. Once his revenge was consummated, however, he 

repented of his own wickedness, and then he saw Fermina Daza rising 

from the ground, her spirit intact, distant but alive, because it was not 

possible for him to imagine the world without her. He did not sleep 

again, and if at times he sat down to pick at food, it was in the hope 

that Fermina Daza would be at the table or, conversely, to deny her 

the homage of fasting for her sake. At times his solace was the 

certainty that during the intoxication of her wedding celebration, even 



during the feverish nights of her honeymoon, Fermina Daza would 
suffer one moment, one at least but one in any event, when the 
phantom of the sweetheart she had scorned, humiliated, and insulted 
would appear in her thoughts, and all her happiness would be 
destroyed. 

The night before they reached the port of Caracoli, which was the end 
of the journey, the Captain gave the traditional farewell party, with a 
woodwind orchestra composed of crew members, and fireworks from 
the bridge. The minister from Great Britain had survived the odyssey 
with exemplary stoicism, shooting with his camera the animals they 
would not allow him to kill with his rifles, and not a night went by that 
he was not seen in evening dress in the dining room. But he came to 
the final party wearing the tartans of the MacTavish clan, and he 
played the bagpipe for everyone's entertainment and taught those who 
were interested how to dance his national dances, and before daybreak 
he almost had to be carried to his cabin. Florentino Ariza, prostrate 
with grief, had gone to the farthest corner of the deck where the noise 
of the revelry could not reach him, and he put on Lotario Thugut's 
overcoat in an effort to overcome the shivering in his bones. He had 
awakened at five that morning, as the condemned man awakens at 
dawn on the day of his execution, and for that entire day he had done 
nothing but imagine, minute by minute, each of the events at Fermina 
Daza's wedding. Later, when he returned home, he realized that he 
had made a mistake in the time and that everything had been 
different from what he had imagined, and he even had the good sense 
to laugh at his fantasy. 

But in any case, it was a Saturday of passion, which culminated in a 
new crisis of fever when he thought the moment had come for the 



newlyweds to flee in secret through a false door to give themselves 
over to the delights of their first night. Someone saw him shivering 
with fever and informed the Captain, who, fearing a case of cholera, 
left the party with the ship's doctor, and the doctor took the precaution 
of sending Florentino to the quarantine cabin with a dose of bromides. 
The next day, however, when they sighted the cliffs of Caracoli, his 
fever had disappeared and his spirits were elated, because in the 
marasmus of the sedatives he had resolved once and for all that he did 
not give a damn about the brilliant future of the telegraph and that he 
would take this very same boat back to his old Street of Windows. 
It was not difficult to persuade them to give him return passage in 
exchange for the cabin he had surrendered to the representative of 
Queen Victoria. The Captain also attempted to dissuade him, arguing 
that the telegraph was the science of the future. So much so, he said, 
that they were already devising a system for installing it on boats. But 
he resisted all arguments, and in the end the Captain took him home, 
not because he owed him the price of the cabin but because he knew 
of his excellent connections to the River Company of the Caribbean. 
The trip downriver took less than six days, and Florentino Ariza felt 
that he was home again from the moment they entered Mercedes 
Lagoon at dawn and he saw the trail of lights on the fishing canoes 
undulating in the wake of the boat. It was still dark when they docked 
in Nino Perdido Cove, nine leagues from the bay and the last port for 
riverboats until the old Spanish channel was dredged and put back into 
service. The passengers would have to wait until six o'clock in the 
morning to board the fleet of sloops for hire that would carry them to 
their final destination. But Florentino Ariza was so eager that he sailed 
much earlier on the mail sloop, whose crew acknowledged him as one 



of their own. Before he left the boat he succumbed to the temptation 
of a symbolic act: he threw his petate into the water, and followed it 
with his eyes as it floated past the beacon lights of the invisible 
fishermen, left the lagoon, and disappeared in the ocean. He was sure 
he would not need it again for all the rest of his days. Never again, 
because never again would he abandon the city of Fermina Daza. 
The bay was calm at daybreak. Above the floating mist Florentino 
Ariza saw the dome of the Cathedral, gilded by the first light of dawn, 
he saw the dovecotes on the flat roofs, and orienting himself by them, 
he located the balcony of the palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, 
where he supposed that the lady of his misfortune was still dozing, her 
head on the shoulder of her satiated husband. That idea broke his 
heart, but he did nothing to suppress it; on the contrary, he took 
pleasure in his pain. The sun was beginning to grow hot as the mail 
sloop made its way through the labyrinth of sailing ships that lay at 
anchor where the countless odors from the public market and the 
decaying matter on the bottom of the bay blended into one pestilential 
stench. The schooner from Riohacha had just arrived, and gangs of 
stevedores in water up to their waists lifted the passengers over the 
side and carried them to shore. Florentino Ariza was the first to jump 
on land from the mail sloop, and from that time on he no longer 
detected the fetid reek of the bay in the city, but was aware only of 
the personal fragrance of Fermina Daza. Everything smelled of her. 
He did not return to the telegraph office. His only interest seemed to 
be the serialized love novels and the volumes of the Popular Library 
that his mother continued to buy for him and that he continued to read 
again and again, lying in his hammock, until he learned them by 
heart. He did not even ask for his violin. He reestablished relations 



with his closest friends, and sometimes they played billiards or 
conversed in the outdoor cafes under the arches around the Plaza of 
the Cathedral, but he did not go back to the Saturday night dances: he 
could not conceive of them without her. 

On the morning of his return from his inconclusive journey, he learned 
that Fermina Daza was spending her honeymoon in Europe, and his 
agitated heart took it for granted that she would live there, if not 
forever then for many years to come. This certainty filled him with his 
first hope of forgetting. He thought of Rosalba, whose memory burned 
brighter as the other's dimmed. It was during this time that he grew 
the mustache with the waxed tips that he would keep for the rest of his 
life and that changed his entire being, and the idea of substituting one 
love for another carried him along surprising paths. Little by little the 
fragrance of Fermina Daza became less frequent and less intense, and 
at last it remained only in white gardenias. 

One night during the war, when he was drifting, not knowing what 
direction his life should take, the celebrated Widow Nazaret took 
refuge in his house because hers had been destroyed by cannon fire 
during the siege by the rebel general Ricardo Gaitan Obeso. It was 
Transito Ariza who took control of the situation and sent the widow to 
her son's bedroom on the pretext that there was no space in hers, but 
actually in the hope that another love would cure him of the one that 
did not allow him to live. Florentino Ariza had not made love since he 
lost his virginity to Rosalba in the cabin on the boat, and in this 
emergency it seemed natural to him that the widow should sleep in the 
bed and he in the hammock. But she had already made the decision 
for him. She sat on the edge of the bed where Florentino Ariza was 
lying, not knowing what to do, and she began to speak to him of her 



inconsolable grief for the husband who had died three years earlier, 
and in the meantime she removed her widow's weeds and tossed them 
in the air until she was not even wearing her wedding ring. She took 
off the taffeta blouse with the beaded embroidery and threw it across 
the room onto the easy chair in the corner, she tossed her 
bodice over her shoulder to the other side of the bed, with one pull she 
removed her long ruffled skirt, her satin garter belt and funereal 
stockings, and she threw everything on the floor until the room was 
carpeted with the last remnants of her mourning. She did it with so 
much joy, and with such well-measured pauses, that each of her 
gestures seemed to be saluted by the cannon of the attacking troops, 
which shook the city down to its foundations. Florentino Ariza tried to 
help her unfasten her stays, but she anticipated him with a deft 
maneuver, for in five years of matrimonial devotion she learned to 
depend on herself in all phases of love, even the preliminary stages, 
with no help from anyone. Then she removed her lace panties, sliding 
them down her legs with the rapid movements of a swimmer, and at 
last she was naked. 

She was twenty-eight years old and had given birth three times, but 
her naked body preserved intact the giddy excitement of an unmarried 
woman. Florentino Ariza was never to understand how a few articles of 
penitential clothing could have hidden the drives of that wild mare 
who, choking on her own feverish desire, undressed him as she had 
never been able to undress her husband, who would have thought her 
perverse, and tried, with the confusion and innocence of five years of 
conjugal fidelity, to satisfy in a single assault the iron abstinence of her 
mourning. Before that night, and from the hour of grace when her 
mother gave birth to her, she had never even been in the same bed 



with any man other than her dead husband. 

She did not permit herself the vulgarity of remorse. On the contrary. 
Kept awake by the gunfire whizzing over the roofs, she continued to 
evoke her husband's excellent qualities until daybreak, not reproaching 
him for any disloyalty other than his having died without her, which 
was mitigated by her conviction that he had never belonged to her as 
much as he did now that he was in the coffin nailed shut with a dozen 
three-inch nails and two meters under the ground. 
"I am happy," she said, "because only now do I know for certain where 
he is when he is not at home." 

That night she stopped wearing mourning once and for all, without 
passing through the useless intermediate stage of blouses with little 
gray flowers, and her life was filled with love songs and provocative 
dresses decorated with macaws and spotted butterflies, and she began 
to share her body with anyone who cared to ask for it. When the 
troops of General Gaitan Obeso were defeated after a sixty-three-day 
siege, she rebuilt the house that had been damaged by cannon fire, 
adding a beautiful sea terrace that overlooked the breakwater where 
the surf would vent its fury during the stormy season. That was her 
love nest, as she called it without irony, where she would receive only 
men she liked, when she liked, how she liked, and without charging 
one red cent, because in her opinion it was the men who were doing 
her the favor. I n a very few cases she would accept a gift, as long as it 
was not made of gold, and she managed everything with so much skill 
that no one could have presented conclusive evidence of improper 
conduct. On only one occasion did she hover on the edge of public 
scandal, when the rumor circulated that Archbishop Dante de Luna had 
not died by accident after eating a plate of poisonous mushrooms but 



had eaten them intentionally because she threatened to expose him if 
he persisted in his sacrilegious solicitations. As she used to say 
between peals of laughter, she was the only free woman in the 
province. 

The Widow Nazaret never missed her occasional appointments with 
Florentino Ariza, not even during her busiest times, and it was always 
without pretensions of loving or being loved, although always in the 
hope of finding something that resembled love, but without the 
problems of love. Sometimes he went to her house, and then they 
liked to sit on the sea terrace, drenched by salt spray, watching the 
dawn of the whole world on the horizon. With all his perseverance, he 
tried to teach her the tricks he had seen others perform through the 
peepholes in the transient hotel, along with the theoretical 
formulations preached by Lotario Thugut on his nights of debauchery. 
He persuaded her to let themselves be observed while they made 
love, to replace the conventional missionary position with the bicycle 
on the sea, or the chicken on the grill, or the drawnand-quartered 
angel, and they almost broke their necks when the cords snapped as 
they were trying to devise something new in a hammock. The lessons 
were to no avail. The truth is that she was a fearless apprentice but 
lacked all talent for guided fornication. She never understood the 
charm of serenity in bed, never had a moment of invention, and her 
orgasms were inopportune and epidermic: an uninspired lay. For a 
long time Florentino Ariza lived with the deception that he was the only 
one, and she humored him in that belief until she had the bad luck to 
talk in her sleep. Little by little, listening to her sleep, he pieced 
together the navigation chart of her dreams and sailed among the 
countless islands of her secret life. In this way he learned that she did 



not want to marry him, but did feel joined to his life because of her 
immense gratitude to him for having corrupted her. She often said to 
him: 

"I adore you because you made me a whore." 

Said in another way, she was right. Florentino Ariza had stripped her of 
the virginity of a conventional marriage, more pernicious than 
congenital virginity or the abstinence of widowhood. He had taught her 
that nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love. 
And something else that from that time on would be her reason for 
living: he convinced her that one comes into the world with a 
predetermined allotment of lays, and whoever does not use them for 
whatever reason, one's own or someone else's, willingly or unwillingly, 
loses them forever. It was to her credit that she took him at his word. 
Still, because he thought he knew her better than anyone else, 
Florentino Ariza could not understand why a woman of such puerile 
resources should be so popular--a woman, moreover, who never 
stopped talking in bed about the grief she felt for her dead husband. 
The only explanation he could think of, one that could not be denied, 
was that the Widow Nazaret had enough tenderness to make up for 
what she lacked in the marital arts. They began to see each other with 
less frequency as she widened her horizons and he exploited his, trying 
to find solace in other hearts for his pain, and at last, with no sorrow, 
they forgot each other. 

That was Florentino Ariza's first bedroom love. But instead of their 
forming a permanent union, of the kind his mother dreamed about, 
both used it to embark on a profligate way of life. Florentino Ariza 
developed methods that seemed incredible in someone like him, 
taciturn and thin and dressed like an old man from another time. He 



had two advantages working in his favor, however. One was an 
unerring eye that promptly spotted the woman, even in a crowd, who 
was waiting for him, though even then he courted her with caution, for 
he felt that nothing was more embarrassing or more demeaning than a 
refusal. The other was that women promptly identified him as a 
solitary man in need of love, a street beggar as humble as a whipped 
dog, who made them yield without conditions, without asking him for 
anything, without hoping for anything from him except the tranquillity 
of knowing they had done him a favor. These were his only 
weapons, and with them he joined in historic battles of absolute 
secrecy, which he recorded with the rigor of a notary in a coded book, 
recognizable among many others by the title that said everything: 
Women. His first notation was the Widow Nazaret. Fifty years later, 
when Fermina Daza was freed from her sacramental sentence, he had 
some twenty-five notebooks, with six hundred twenty-two entries of 
long-term liaisons, apart from the countless fleeting adventures that 
did not even deserve a charitable note. 

After six months of furious lovemaking with the Widow Nazaret, 
Florentino Ariza himself was convinced that he had survived the 
torment of Fermina Daza. He not only believed it, he also discussed it 
several times with Transito Ariza during the two years of Fermina 
Daza's wedding trip, and he continued to believe it with a feeling of 
boundless freedom until one fateful Sunday when, with no warning and 
no presentiments, he saw her leaving High Mass on her husband's arm, 
besieged by the curiosity and flattery of her new world. The same 
ladies from fine families who at first had scorned and ridiculed her for 
being an upstart without a name went out of their way to make her 
feel like one of them, and she intoxicated them with her charm. She 



had assumed the condition of woman of the world to such perfection 
that Florentino Ariza needed a moment of reflection to recognize her. 
She was another person: the composure of an older woman, the high 
boots, the hat with the veil and colored plume from some Oriental 
bird—everything about her was distinctive and confident, as if it had 
been hers from birth. He found her more beautiful and youthful than 
ever, but more lost to him than she had ever been, although he did 
not understand why until he saw the curve of her belly under the silk 
tunic: she was in her sixth month of pregnancy. But what impressed 
him most was that she and her husband made an admirable couple, 
and both of them negotiated the world with so much fluidity that they 
seemed to float above the pitfalls of reality. Florentino Ariza did not 
feel either jealousy or rage--only great contempt for himself. He felt 
poor, ugly, inferior, and unworthy not only of her but of any other 
woman on the face of the earth. 

So she had returned. She came back without any reason to repent of 
the sudden change she had made in her life. On the contrary, she had 
fewer and fewer such reasons, above all after surviving the difficulties 
of the early years, which was especially admirable in her case, for she 
had come to her wedding night still trailing clouds of innocence. She 
had begun to lose them during her journey through Cousin 
Hildebranda's province. I n Valledupar she realized at last why the 
roosters chase the hens, she witnessed the brutal ceremony of the 
burros, she watched the birth of calves, and she listened to her cousins 
talking with great naturalness about which couples in the family still 
made love and which ones had stopped, and when, and why, even 
though they continued to live together. That was when she was 
initiated into solitary love, with the strange sensation of discovering 



something that her instincts had always known, first in bed, holding 
her breath so she would not give herself away in the bedroom she 
shared with half a dozen cousins, and then, with eagerness and 
unconcern, sprawling on the bathroom floor, her hair loose, smoking 
her first mule drivers' cigarette. She always did it with certain pangs of 
conscience, which she could overcome only after she was married, and 
always in absolute secrecy, although her cousins boasted to each other 
not only about the number of orgasms they had in one day but even 
about their form and size. But despite those bewitching first rites, she 
was still burdened by the belief that the loss of virginity was a bloody 
sacrifice. 

So that her wedding, one of the most spectacular of the final years of 
the last century, was for her the prelude to horror. The anguish of the 
honeymoon affected her much more than the social uproar caused by 
her marriage to the most incomparably elegant young man of the day. 
When the banns were announced at High Mass in the Cathedral, 
Fermina Daza received anonymous letters again, some of them 
containing death threats, but she took scant notice of them because all 
the fear of which she was capable was centered on her imminent 
violation. Although that was not her intention, it was the correct way to 
respond to anonymous letters from a class accustomed by the affronts 
of history to bow before faits accomplis. So that little by little they 
swallowed their opposition as it became clear that the marriage was 
irrevocable. She noticed the gradual changes in the attention paid her 
by livid women, degraded by arthritis and resentment, who one day 
were convinced of the uselessness of their intrigues and appeared 
unannounced in the little Park of the Evangels as if it were their own 
home, bearing recipes and engagement gifts. Transito Ariza knew that 



world, although this was the only time it caused her suffering in her 
own person, and she knew that her clients always reappeared on the 
eve of great parties to ask her please to dig down into her jars and 
lend them their pawned jewels for only twenty-four hours in exchange 
for the payment of additional interest. It had been a long while since 
this had occurred to the extent it did now, the jars emptied so that the 
ladies with long last names could emerge from their shadowy 
sanctuaries and, radiant in their own borrowed jewels, appear at a 
wedding more splendid than any that would be seen for the rest of the 
century and whose ultimate glory was the sponsorship of Dr. Rafael 
Nunez, three times President of the Republic, philosopher, poet, and 
author of the words to the national anthem, as anyone could learn, 
from that time on, in some of the more recent dictionaries. Fermina 
Daza came to the main altar of the Cathedral on the arm of her father, 
whose formal dress lent him, for the day, an ambiguous air of 
respectability. She was married forever after at the main altar of the 
Cathedral, with a Mass at which three bishops officiated, at eleven 
o'clock in the morning on the day of the Holy Trinity, and without a 
single charitable thought for Florentino Ariza, who at that hour was 
delirious with fever, dying because of her, lying without shelter on a 
boat that was not to carry him to forgetting. During the ceremony, and 
later at the reception, she wore a smile that seemed painted on with 
white lead, a soulless grimace that some interpreted as a mocking 
smile of victory, but in reality was her poor attempt at disguising the 
terror of a virgin bride. 

It was fortunate that unforeseen circumstances, combined with her 
husband's understanding, resolved the first three nights without pain. It 
was providential. The ship of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 



its itinerary upset by bad weather in the Caribbean, announced only 
three days in advance that its departure had been moved ahead by 
twenty-four hours, so that it would not sail for La Rochelle on the day 
following the wedding, as had been planned for the past six months, 
but on that same night. No one believed that the change was not 
another of the many elegant surprises the wedding had to offer, for 
the reception ended after midnight on board the brightly lit ocean 
liner, with a Viennese orchestra that was premiering the most recent 
waltzes by Johann Strauss on this voyage. So that various members of 
the wedding party, soggy with champagne, had to be dragged ashore 
by their long-suffering wives when they began to ask the stewards if 
there were any free cabins so they could continue the celebration all 
the way to Paris. The last to leave saw Lorenzo Daza outside the port 
taverns, sitting on the ground in the middle of the street, his tuxedo in 
ruins. He was crying with tremendous loud wails, the way Arabs cry for 
their dead, sitting in a trickle of fouled water that might well have 
been a pool of tears. 

Not on the first night on rough seas, or on the following nights of 
smooth sailing, or ever in her very long married life did the barbarous 
acts occur that Fermina Daza had feared. Despite the size of the ship 
and the luxuries of their stateroom, the first night was a horrible 
repetition of the schooner trip from Riohacha, and her husband, a 
diligent physician, did not sleep at all so he could comfort her, which 
was all that an overly distinguished physician knew how to do for 
seasickness. But the storm abated on the third day, after the port of 
Guayra, and by that time they had spent so much time together and 
had talked so much that they felt like old friends. On the fourth night, 
when both resumed their ordinary habits, Dr. Juvenal Urbino was 



surprised that his young wife did not pray before going to sleep. She 
was frank with him: the duplicity of the nuns had provoked in her a 
certain resistance to rituals, but her faith was intact, and she had 
learned to maintain it in silence. She said: "I prefer direct 
communication with God." He understood her reasoning, and from then 
on they each practiced the same religion in their own way. They had 
had a brief engagement, but a rather informal one for that time: Dr. 
Urbino had visited her in her house, without a chaperone, every day at 
sunset. She would not have permitted him to touch even her fingertips 
before the episcopal blessing, but he had not attempted to. It was on 
the first calm night, when they were in bed but still dressed, that he 
began his first caresses with so much care that his suggestion that she 
put on her nightdress seemed natural to her. She went into the 
bathroom to change, but first she turned out the lights in the 
stateroom, and when she came out in her chemise she covered the 
cracks around the door with articles of clothing so she could return to 
bed in absolute darkness. As she did so, she said with good humor: 
"What do you expect, Doctor? This is the first time I have slept with a 
stranger." 

Dr. Urbino felt her slide in next to him like a startled little animal, 
trying to keep as far away as possible in a bunk where it was difficult 
for two people to be together without touching. He took her hand, cold 
and twitching with terror, he entwined his fingers with hers, and almost 
in a whisper he began to recount his recollections of other ocean 
voyages. She was tense again because when she came back to bed she 
realized that he had taken off all his clothes while she was in the 
bathroom, which revived her terror of what was to come. But what was 
to come took several hours, for Dr. Urbino continued talking very 



slowly as he won her body's confidence millimeter by millimeter. He 
spoke to her of Paris, of love in Paris, of the lovers in Paris who kissed 
on the street, on the omnibus, on the flowering terraces of the cafes 
opened to the burning winds and languid accordions of summer, who 
made love standing up on the quays of the Seine without anyone 
disturbing them. As he spoke in the darkness he caressed the curve of 
her neck with his fingertips, he caressed the fine silky hair on her 
arms, her evasive belly, and when he felt that her tension had given 
way he made his first attempt to raise her nightgown, but she stopped 
him with an impulse typical of her character. She said: "I know how to 
do it myself." She took it off, in fact, and then she was so still that Dr. 
Urbino might have thought she was no longer there if it had not been 
for the glint of her body in the darkness. 

After a while he took her hand again, and this time it was warm and 
relaxed but still moist with a tender dew. They were silent and 
unmoving for a while longer, he looking for the opportunity to take the 
next step and she waiting for it without knowing where it 
would come from, while the darkness expanded as their breathing 
grew more and more intense. Without warning he let go of her hand 
and made his leap into the void: he wet the tip of his forefinger with 
his tongue and grazed her nipple when it was caught off guard, and 
she felt a mortal explosion as if he had touched a raw nerve. She was 
glad of the darkness so he could not see the searing blush that shook 
her all the way to the base of her skull. "Don't worry," he said with 
great calm. "Don't forget that I've met them already." He felt her 
smile, and her voice was sweet and new in the darkness. 
"I remember it very well," she said, "and I 'm still angry." Then he 
knew that they had rounded the cape of good hope, and he took her 



large, soft hand again and covered it with forlorn little kisses, first the 
hard metacarpus, the long, discerning fingers, the diaphanous nails, 
and then the hieroglyphics of her destiny on her perspiring palm. She 
never knew how her hand came to his chest and felt something it could 
not decipher. He said: "It is a scapular." She caressed the hairs on his 
chest one by one and then seized all the hair in her fist to pull it out by 
the roots. "Harder," he said. She tried, until she knew she was not 
hurting him, and then it was her hand that sought his, lost in the 
darkness. But he did not allow their fingers to intertwine; instead he 
grasped her by the wrist and moved her hand along his body with an 
invisible but well-directed strength until she felt the ardent breath of a 
naked animal without bodily form, but eager and erect. Contrary to 
what he had imagined, even contrary to what she herself had 
imagined, she did not withdraw her hand or let it lie inert where he 
placed it, but instead she commended herself body and soul to the 
Blessed Virgin, clenched her teeth for fear she would laugh out loud at 
her own madness, and began to identify her rearing adversary by 
touch, discovering its size, the strength of its shaft, the extension of its 
wings, amazed by its determination but pitying its solitude, making it 
her own with a detailed curiosity that someone less experienced than 
her husband might have confused with caresses. He summoned all his 
reserves of strength to overcome the vertigo of her implacable 
scrutiny, until she released it with childish unconcern as if she were 
tossing it into the trash. 

"I have never been able to understand how that thing works," she said. 
Then, with authoritative methodology, he explained it to her in all 
seriousness while he moved her hand to the places he mentioned and 
she allowed it to be moved with the obedience of an exemplary pupil. 



At a propitious moment he suggested that all of this was easier in the 
light. He was going to turn it on, but she held his arm, saying: "I see 
better with my hands." I n reality she wanted to turn on the light as 
well, but she wanted to be the one to do it, without anyone's ordering 
her to, and she had her way. Then he saw her in the sudden 
brightness, huddled in the fetal position beneath the sheet. But he 
watched as she grasped the animal under study without hesitation, 
turned it this way and that, observed it with an interest that was 
beginning to seem more than scientific, and said when she was 
finished: "How ugly it is, even uglier than a woman's thing." He 
agreed, and pointed out other disadvantages more serious than 
ugliness. He said: "It is like a firstborn son: you spend your life 
working for him, sacrificing everything for him, and at the moment of 
truth he does just as he pleases." She continued to examine it, asking 
what this was for and what that was for, and when she felt satisfied 
with her information she hefted it in both hands to confirm that it did 
not weigh enough to bother with, and let it drop with a gesture of 
disdain. 

"Besides, I think it has too many things on it," she said. 
He was astounded. The original thesis of his dissertation had been just 
that: the advantage of simplifying the human organism. It seemed 
antiquated to him, with many useless or duplicated functions that had 
been essential in other stages of the human race but were not in ours. 
Yes: it could be more simple and by the same token less vulnerable. 
He concluded: "It is something that only God can do, of course, but in 
any event it would be good to have it established in theoretical terms." 
She laughed with amusement and so much naturalness that he took 
advantage of the opportunity to embrace her and kiss her for the first 



time on the mouth. She responded, and he continued giving her very 
soft kisses on her cheeks, her nose, her eyelids, while he slipped his 
hand under the sheet and caressed her flat, straight pubic hair: the 
pubic hair of a Japanese. She did not move his hand away, but she 
kept hers on the alert in the event that he took one step further. 
"Let's not go on with the medical lesson," she said. "No," he said. "This 
is going to be a lesson in love." 

Then he pulled down the sheet and she not only did not object but 
kicked it away from the bunk with a rapid movement of her feet 
because she could no longer bear the heat. Her body was undulant and 
elastic, much more serious than it appeared when dressed, with its 
own scent of a forest animal, which distinguished her from all the other 
women in the world. Defenseless in the light, she felt a rush of blood 
surge up to her face, and the only way she could think of to hide it was 
to throw her arms around her husband's neck and give him a hard, 
thorough kiss that lasted until they were both gasping for breath. 
He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he 
liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because 
of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he 
was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They 
did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until 
dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of 
them had made a mistake. 

At dawn, when they fell asleep, she was still a virgin, but she would 
not be one much longer. The following night, in fact, after he taught 
her how to dance Viennese waltzes under the starry Caribbean sky, he 
went to the bathroom after she did, and when he returned to the 
stateroom he found her waiting for him naked in the bed. Then it was 



she who took the initiative, and gave herself without fear, without 
regret, with the joy of an adventure on the high seas, and with no 
traces of bloody ceremony except for the rose of honor on the sheet. 
They both made love well, almost as if by miracle, and they continued 
to make love well, night and day and better each time for the rest of 
the voyage, and when they reached La Rochelle they got along as if 
they were old lovers. 

They stayed in Europe, with Paris as their base, and made short trips 
to neighboring countries. During that time they made love every day, 
more than once on winter Sundays when they frolicked in bed until it 
was time for lunch. He was a man of strong impulses, and well 
disciplined besides, and she was not one to let anyone take advantage 
of her, so they had to be content with sharing power in bed. After 
three months of feverish lovemaking he concluded that one of them 
was sterile, and they both submitted to rigorous examinations at the 
Hopital de la Salpetriere, where he had been an intern. It was an 
arduous but fruitless effort. However, when they least expected it, and 
with no scientific intervention, the miracle occurred. When they 
returned home, Fermina was in the sixth month of her pregnancy and 
thought herself the happiest woman on earth. The child they had both 
longed for was born without incident under the sign of Aquarius and 
baptized in honor of the grandfather who had died of cholera. 
It was impossible to know if it was Europe or love that changed them, 
for both occurred at the same time. They were, in essence, not only 
between themselves but with everyone else, just as Florentino Ariza 
perceived them when he saw them leaving Mass two weeks after their 
return on that Sunday of his misfortune. They came back with a new 
conception of life, bringing with them the latest trends in the world and 



ready to lead, he with the most recent developments in literature, 
music, and above all in his science. He had a subscription to Le Figaro, 
so he would not lose touch with reality, and another to the Revue des 
Deux Mondes, so that he would not lose touch with poetry. He had also 
arranged with his bookseller in Paris to receive works by the most 
widely read authors, among them Anatole France and Pierre Loti, and 
by those he liked best, including Remy de Gourmont and Paul Bourget, 
but under no circumstances anything by Emile Zola, whom he found 
intolerable despite his valiant intervention in the Dreyfus affair. The 
same bookseller agreed to mail him the most attractive scores from 
the Ricordi catalogue, chamber music above all, so that he could 
maintain the well-deserved title earned by his father as the greatest 
friend of concerts in the city. 

Fermina Daza, always resistant to the demands of fashion, brought 
back six trunks of clothing from different periods, for the great labels 
did not convince her. She had been in the Tuileries in the middle of 
winter for the launching of the collection by Worth, the indisputable 
tyrant of haute couture, and the only thing she got was a case of 
bronchitis that kept her in bed for five days. Laferriere seemed less 
pretentious and voracious to her, but her wise decision was to buy her 
fill of what she liked best in the secondhand shops, although her 
husband swore in dismay that it was corpses' clothing. In the same 
way she brought back quantities of Italian shoes without brand names, 
which she preferred to the renowned and famous shoes by Ferry, and 
she brought back a parasol from Dupuy, as red as the fires of hell, 
which gave our alarmed social chroniclers much to write about. She 
bought only one hat from Madame Reboux, but on the other hand she 
filled a trunk with sprigs of artificial cherries, stalks of all the felt 



flowers she could find, branches of ostrich plumes, crests of peacocks, 
tailfeathers of Asiatic roosters, entire pheasants, hummingbirds, and a 
countless variety of exotic birds preserved in midflight, midcall, 
midagony: everything that had been used in the past twenty years to 
change the appearance of hats. She brought back a collection of fans 
from countries all over the world, each one appropriate to a different 
occasion. She brought back a disturbing fragrance chosen from many 
at the perfume shop in the Bazar de la Charite, before the spring winds 
leveled everything with ashes, but she used it only once because she 
did not recognize herself in the new scent. She also brought back a 
cosmetic case that was the latest thing in seductiveness, and she took 
it to parties at a time when the simple act of checking one's makeup in 
public was considered indecent. 

They also brought back three indelible memories: the unprecedented 
opening of The Tales ofHoffmann in Paris, the terrifying blaze that 
destroyed almost all the gondolas off St. Mark's Square in Venice, 
which they witnessed with grieving hearts from the window of their 
hotel, and their fleeting glimpse of Oscar Wilde during the first 
snowfall in January. But amid these and so many other memories, Dr. 
J uvenal Urbino had one that he always regretted not sharing with his 
wife, for it came from his days as a bachelor student in Paris. It was 
the memory of Victor Hugo, who enjoyed an impassioned fame here 
that had nothing to do with his books, because someone said that he 
had said, although no one actually heard him say it, that our 
Constitution was meant for a nation not of men but of angels. From 
that time on, special homage was paid to him, and most of our many 
compatriots who traveled to France went out of their way to see him. A 
half-dozen students, among them Juvenal Urbino, stood guard for a 



time outside his residence on Avenue Eylau, and at the cafes where it 
was said he came without fail and never came, and at last they sent a 
written request for a private audience in the name of the angels of the 
Constitution of Rionegro. They never received a reply. One day, when 
Juvenal Urbino happened to be passing the Luxembourg Gardens, he 
saw him come out of the Senate with a young woman on his arm. He 
seemed very old, he walked with difficulty, his beard and hair were 
less brilliant than in his pictures, and he wore an overcoat that seemed 
to belong to a larger man. He did not want to ruin the memory with an 
impertinent greeting: he was satisfied with the almost unreal vision 
that he would keep for the rest of his life. When he returned to Paris 
as a married man, in a position to see him under more formal 
circumstances, Victor Hugo had already died. 

As a consolation, J uvenal Urbino and Fermina Daza brought back the 
shared memory of a snowy afternoon when they were intrigued by a 
crowd that defied the storm outside a small bookshop on the Boulevard 
des Capucines because Oscar Wilde was inside. When he came out at 
last, elegant indeed but perhaps too conscious of being so, the group 
surrounded him, asking that he sign their books. Dr. Urbino had 
stopped just to watch him, but his impulsive wife wanted to cross the 
boulevard so that he could sign the only thing she thought appropriate, 
given the fact that she did not have a book: her beautiful gazelle-skin 
glove, long, smooth, soft, the same color as her newlywed's skin. She 
was sure that a man as refined as he would appreciate the gesture. But 
her husband objected with firmness, and when she tried to go despite 
his arguments, he did not feel he could survive the embarrassment. 
"If you cross that street," he said to her, "when you get back here you 
will find me dead." 



It was something natural in her. Before she had been married a year, 
she moved through the world with the same assurance that had been 
hers as a little girl in the wilds of San Juan de la Cienaga, as if she had 
been born with it, and she had a facility for dealing with strangers that 
left her husband dumbfounded, and a mysterious talent for making 
herself understood in Spanish with anyone, anywhere. "You have to 
know languages when you go to sell something," she said with 
mocking laughter. "But when you go to buy, everyone does what he 
must to understand you." It was difficult to imagine anyone who could 
have assimilated the daily life of Paris with so much speed and so 
much joy, and who learned to love her memory of it despite the 
eternal rain. Nevertheless, when she returned home overwhelmed by 
so many experiences, tired of traveling, drowsy with her pregnancy, 
the first thing she was asked in the port was what she thought of the 
marvels of Europe, and she summed up many months of bliss with four 
words of Caribbean slang: 
"It's not so much." 



CHAPTER FOUR 

THE DAY THAT Florentine) Ariza saw Fermina Daza in the atrium of the 
Cathedral, in the sixth month of her pregnancy and in full command of 
her new condition as a woman of the world, he made a fierce decision 
to win fame and fortune in order to deserve her. He did not even stop 
to think about the obstacle of her being married, because at the same 
time he decided, as if it depended on himself alone, that Dr. Juvenal 
Urbino had to die. He did not know when or how, but he considered it 
an ineluctable event that he was resolved to wait for without 
impatience or violence, even till the end of time. 
He began at the beginning. He presented himself unannounced in the 
office of Uncle Leo XII, President of the Board of Directors and General 
Manager of the River Company of the Caribbean, and expressed his 
willingness to yield to his plans. His uncle was angry with him because 
of the manner in which he had thrown away the good position of 
telegraph operator in Villa de Leyva, but he allowed himself to be 
swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for 
all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges 
them over and over again to give birth to themselves. Besides, his 
brother's widow had died the year before, still smarting from rancor 
but without any heirs. And so he gave the job to his errant nephew. 
It was a decision typical of Don Leo XII Loayza. Inside the shell of a 
soulless merchant was hidden a genial lunatic, as willing to bring forth 
a spring of lemonade in the Guajira Desert as to flood a solemn funeral 
with weeping at his heartbreaking rendition of "In Questa Tomba 
Oscura." His head was covered with curls, he had the lips of a faun, 
and all he needed was a lyre and a laurel wreath to be the image of 



the incendiary Nero of Christian mythology. When he was not occupied 
with the administration of his decrepit vessels, still afloat out of sheer 
distraction on the part of fate, or with the problems of river navigation, 
which grew more and more critical every day, he devoted his free time 
to the enrichment of his lyric repertoire. He liked nothing better than 
to sing at funerals. He had the voice of a galley slave, untrained but 
capable of impressive registers. Someone had told him that Enrico 
Caruso could shatter a vase with the power of his voice, and he had 
spent years trying to imitate him, even with the windowpanes. His 
friends brought him the most delicate vases they had come across in 
their travels through the world, and they organized special parties so 
that he might at last achieve the culmination of his dream. He never 
succeeded. Still, in the depth of his thundering there was a glimmer of 
tenderness that broke the hearts of his listeners as if they were the 
crystal vases of the great Caruso, and it was this that made him so 
revered at funerals. Except at one, when he thought it a good idea to 
sing "When I Wake Up in Glory," a beautiful and moving funeral song 
from Louisiana, and he was told to be quiet by the priest, who could 
not understand that Protestant intrusion in his church. 
And so, between operatic encores and Neapolitan serenades, his 
creative talent and his invincible entrepreneurial spirit made him the 
hero of river navigation during the time of its greatest splendor. He 
had come from nothing, like his dead brothers, and all of them went as 
far as they wished despite the stigma of being illegitimate children 
and, even worse, illegitimate children who had never been recognized. 
They were the cream of what in those days was called the 
"shop-counter aristocracy," whose sanctuary was the Commercial Club. 
And yet, even when he had the resources to live like the Roman 



emperor he resembled, Uncle Leo XII lived in the old city because it 
was convenient to his business, in such an austere manner and in such 
a plain house that he could never shake off an unmerited reputation 
for miserliness. His only luxury was even simpler: a house by the sea, 
two leagues from his offices, furnished only with six handmade stools, 
a stand for earthenware jars, and a hammock on the terrace where he 
could lie down to think on Sundays. No one described him better than 
he did when someone accused him of being rich. 

"No, not rich," he said. "I am a poor man with money, which is not the 
same thing." His strange nature, which someone once praised in a 
speech as lucid dementia, allowed him to see in an instant what no one 
else ever saw in Florentino Ariza. From the day he came to his office 
to ask for work, with his doleful appearance and his twenty-six useless 
years behind him, he had tested him with the severity of a barracks 
training that could have broken the hardest man. But he did not 
intimidate him. What Uncle Leo XII never suspected was that his 
nephew's courage did not come from the need to survive or from a 
brute indifference inherited from his father, but from a driving need 
for love, which no obstacle in this world or the next would ever break. 
The worst years were the early ones, when he was appointed clerk to 
the Board of Directors, which seemed a position made to order for 
him. Lotario Thugut, Uncle Leo XII 's old music teacher, was the one 
who advised him to give his nephew a writing job because he was a 
voracious wholesale consumer of literature, although he preferred the 
worst to the best. Uncle Leo XII disregarded what he said concerning 
his nephew's bad taste in reading, for Lotario Thugut would also say of 
him that he had been his worst voice student, and still he could make 
even tombstones cry. In any case, the German was correct in regard to 



what he had thought about least, which was that Florentino Ariza wrote 
everything with so much passion that even official documents seemed 
to be about love. His bills of lading were rhymed no matter how he 
tried to avoid it, and routine business letters had a lyrical spirit that 
diminished their authority. His uncle himself came to his office one day 
with a packet of correspondence that he had not dared put his name 
to, and he gave him his last chance to save his soul. 
"If you cannot write a business letter you will pick up the trash on the 
dock," he said. Florentino Ariza accepted the challenge. He made a 
supreme effort to learn the mundane simplicity of mercantile prose, 
imitating models from notarial files with the same diligence he had 
once used for popular poets. This was the period when he spent his 
free time in the Arcade of the Scribes, helping unlettered lovers to 
write their scented love notes, in order to unburden his heart of all the 
words of love that he could not use in customs reports. But at the end 
of six months, no matter how hard he twisted, he could not wring the 
neck of his diehard swan. So that when Uncle Leo XI I reproached him 
a second time, he admitted defeat, but with a certain haughtiness. 
"Love is the only thing that interests me," he said. 
"The trouble," his uncle said to him, "is that without river navigation 
there is no love." He kept his threat to have him pick up trash on the 
dock, but he gave him his word that he would promote him, step by 
step, up the ladder of faithful service until he found his place. And he 
did. No work could defeat him, no matter how hard or humiliating it 
was, no salary, no matter how miserable, could demoralize him, and 
he never lost his essential fearlessness when faced with the insolence 
of his superiors. But he was not an innocent, either: everyone who 
crossed his path suffered the consequences of the overwhelming 



determination, capable of anything, that lay behind his helpless 
appearance. Just as Uncle Leo XII had foreseen, and according to his 
desire that his nephew not be ignorant of any secret in the business, 
Florentino Ariza moved through every post during thirty years of 
dedication and tenacity in the face of every trial. He fulfilled all his 
duties with admirable skill, studying every thread in that mysterious 
warp that had so much to do with the offices of poetry, but he never 
won the honor he most desired, which was to write one, just one, 
acceptable business letter. Without intending to, without even knowing 
it, he demonstrated with his life that his father had been right when he 
repeated until his dying day that there was no one with more common 
sense, no stonecutter more obstinate, no manager more lucid or 
dangerous, than a poet. That, at least, is what he was told by Uncle 
Leo XII, who talked to him about his father during moments of 
sentimental leisure and created an image that resembled a dreamer 
more than it did a businessman. 

He told him that Pius V Loayza used the offices for matters more 
pleasant than work, and that he always arranged to leave the house on 
Sundays, with the excuse that he had to meet or dispatch a boat. What 
is more, he had an old boiler installed in the warehouse patio, with a 
steam whistle that someone would sound with navigation signals in the 
event his wife became suspicious. According to his calculations, Uncle 
Leo XII was certain that Florentino Ariza had been conceived on a desk 
in some unlocked office on a hot Sunday afternoon, while from her 
house his father's wife heard the farewells of a boat that never sailed. 
By the time she learned the truth it was too late to accuse him of 
infamy because her husband was already dead. She survived him by 
many years, destroyed by the bitterness of not having a child and 



asking God in her prayers for the eternal damnation of his bastard son. 
The image of his father disturbed Florentino Ariza. His mother had 
spoken of him as a great man with no commercial vocation, who had 
at last gone into the river business because his older brother had been 
a very close collaborator of the German commodore J ohann B. Elbers, 
the father of river navigation. They were the illegitimate sons of the 
same mother, a cook by trade, who had them by different men, and 
all bore her surname and the name of a pope chosen at random from 
the calendar of saints' days, except for Uncle Leo XII, named after the 
Pope in office when he was born. The man called Florentino was their 
maternal grandfather, so that the name had come down to the son of 
Transito Ariza after skipping over an entire generation of pontiffs. 
Florentino always kept the notebook in which his father wrote love 
poems, some of them inspired by Transito Ariza, its pages decorated 
with drawings of broken hearts. Two things surprised him. One was the 
character of his father's handwriting, identical to his own although he 
had chosen his because it was the one he liked best of the many he 
saw in a manual. The other was finding a sentence that he thought he 
had composed but that his father had written in the notebook long 
before he was born: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is 
notfor love. 

He had also seen the only two pictures of his father. One had been 
taken in Santa Fe, when he was very young, the same age as 
Florentino Ariza when he saw the photograph for the first time, and in 
it he was wearing an overcoat that made him look as if he were 
stuffed inside a bear, and he was leaning against a pedestal that 
supported the decapitated gaiters of a statue. The little boy beside him 
was Uncle Leo XI I , wearing a ship captain's hat. I n the other 



photograph, his father was with a group of soldiers in God knows which 

of so many wars, and he held the longest rifle, and his mustache had a 

gunpowder smell that wafted out of the picture. He was a Liberal and a 

Mason, just like his brothers, and yet he wanted his son to go to the 

seminary. Florentino Ariza did not see the resemblance that people 

observed, but according to his Uncle Leo XII, Pius V was also 

reprimanded for the lyricism of his documents. I n any case, he did not 

resemble him in the pictures, or in his memories of him, or in the 

image transfigured by love that his mother painted, or in the one 

unpainted by his Uncle Leo XII with his cruel wit. Nevertheless, 

Florentino Ariza discovered the resemblance many years later, as he 

was combing his hair in front of the mirror, and only then did he 

understand that a man knows when he is growing old because he 

begins to look like his father. 

He had no memory of him on the Street of Windows. He thought he 

knew that at one time his father slept there, very early in his love 

affair with Transito Ariza, but that he did not visit her again after the 

birth of Florentino. For many years the baptismal certificate was our 

only valid means of identification, and Florentino Ariza's, recorded in 

the parish church of St. Tiburtius, said only that he was the natural son 

of an unwed natural daughter called Transito Ariza. The name of his 

father did not appear on it, although Pius V took care of his son's 

needs in secret until the day he died. This social condition closed the 

doors of the seminary to Florentino Ariza, but he also escaped military 

service during the bloodiest period of our wars because he was the 

only son of an unmarried woman. 

Every Friday after school he sat across from the offices of the River 
Company of the Caribbean, looking at pictures of animals in a book 



that was falling apart because he had looked at it so often. His father 
would walk into the building without looking at him, wearing the frock 
coats that Transito Ariza later had to alter for him, and with a face 
identical to that of St. John the Evangelist on the altars. When he came 
out, many hours later, he would make certain that no one saw him, 
not even his coachman, and he would give him money for the week's 
expenses. They did not speak, not only because his father made no 
effort to, but because he was terrified of him. One day, after he waited 
much longer than usual, his father gave him the coins and said: 
"Take them and do not come back again." 

It was the last time he saw him. But in time he was to learn that Uncle 

Leo XII, who was some ten years younger, continued to bring money 

to Transito Ariza, and was the one who took care of her after Pius V 

died of an untreated colic without leaving anything in writing and 

without the time to make any provisions for his only child: a child of 

the streets. 

The drama of Florentino Ariza while he was a clerk for the River 

Company of the Caribbean was that he could not avoid lyricism 

because he was always thinking about Fermina Daza, and he had 

never learned to write without thinking about her. Later, when he was 

moved to other posts, he had so much love left over inside that he did 

not know what to do with it, and he offered it to unlettered lovers free 

of charge, writing their love missives for them in the Arcade of the 

Scribes. That is where he went after work. He would take off his frock 

coat with his circumspect gestures and hang it over the back of the 

chair, he would put on the cuffs so he would not dirty his shirt sleeves, 

he would unbutton his vest so he could think better, and sometimes 

until very late at night he would encourage the hopeless with letters of 

mad adoration. From time to time he would be approached by a poor 



woman who had a problem with one of her children, a war veteran 
who persisted in demanding payment of his pension, someone who had 
been robbed and wanted to file a complaint with the government, but 
no matter how he tried, he could not satisfy them, because the only 
convincing document he could write was a love letter. He did not even 
ask his new clients any questions, because all he had to do was look at 
the whites of their eyes to know what their problem was, and he would 
write page after page of uncontrolled love, following the infallible 
formula of writing as he thought about Fermina Daza and nothing but 
Fermina Daza. After the first month he had to establish a system of 
appointments made in advance so that he would not be swamped by 
yearning lovers. 

His most pleasant memory of that time was of a very timid young girl, 
almost a child, who trembled as she asked him to write an answer to 
an irresistible letter that she had just received, and that Florentino 
Ariza recognized as one he had written on the previous afternoon. He 
answered it in a different style, one that was in tune with the emotions 
and the age of the girl, and in a hand that also seemed to be hers, for 
he knew how to create a handwriting for every occasion, according to 
the character of each person. He wrote, imagining to himself what 
Fermina Daza would have said to him if she had loved him as much as 
that helpless child loved her suitor. Two days later, of course, he had 
to write the boy's reply with the same hand, style, and kind of love 
that he had attributed to him in the first letter, and so it was that he 
became involved in a feverish correspondence with himself. Before a 
month had passed, each came to him separately to thank him for what 
he himself had proposed in the boy's letter and accepted with devotion 
in the girl's response: they were going to marry. 



Only when they had their first child did they realize, after a casual 
conversation, that their letters had been written by the same scribe, 
and for the first time they went together to the Arcade to ask him to 
be the child's godfather. Florentino Ariza was so enraptured by the 
practical evidence of his dreams that he used time he did not have to 
write a Lovers' Companion that was more poetic and extensive than 
the one sold in doorways for twenty centavos and that half the city 
knew by heart. He categorized all the imaginable situations in which he 
and Fermina Daza might find themselves, and for all of them he wrote 
as many models and alternatives as he could think of. When he 
finished, he had some thousand letters in three volumes as complete 
as the Covarrubias Dictionary, but no printer in the city would take the 
risk of publishing them, and they ended up in an attic along with other 
papers from the past, for Transito Ariza flatly refused to dig out the 
earthenware jars and squander the savings of a lifetime on a mad 
publishing venture. Years later, when Florentino Ariza had the 
resources to publish the book himself, it was difficult for him to accept 
the reality that love letters had gone out of fashion. 
As he was starting out in the River Company of the Caribbean and 
writing letters free of charge in the Arcade of the Scribes, the friends 
of Florentino Ariza's youth were certain that they were slowly losing 
him beyond recall. And they were right. When he returned from his 
voyage along the river, he still saw some of them in the hope of 
dimming the memory of Fermina Daza, he played billiards with them, 
he went to their dances, he allowed himself to be raffled off among the 
girls, he allowed himself to do everything he thought would help him 
to become the man he had once been. Later, when Uncle Leo XII took 
him on as an employee, he played dominoes with his officemates in 



the Commercial Club, and they began to accept him as one of their 
own when he spoke to them of nothing but the navigation company, 
which he did not call by its complete name but by its initials: the R 
C.C. He even changed the way he ate. As indifferent and irregular as 
he had been until then regarding food, that was how habitual and 
austere he became until the end of his days: a large cup of black 
coffee for breakfast, a slice of poached fish with white rice for lunch, a 
cup of cafe con leche and a piece of cheese before going to bed. He 
drank black coffee at any hour, anywhere, under any circumstances, as 
many as thirty little cups a day: a brew like crude oil which he 
preferred to prepare himself and which he always kept near at hand in 
a thermos. He was another person, despite his firm decision and 
anguished efforts to continue to be the same man he had been before 
his mortal encounter with love. 

The truth is that he was never the same again. Winning back Fermina 
Daza was the sole purpose of his life, and he was so certain of 
achieving it sooner or later that he convinced Transito Ariza to continue 
with the restoration of the house so that it would be ready to receive 
her whenever the miracle took place. I n contrast to her reaction to the 
proposed publication of the Lovers' Companion, Transito Ariza went 
much further: she bought the house at once and undertook a complete 
renovation. They made a reception room where the bedroom had 
been, on the upper floor they built two spacious, bright bedrooms, one 
for the married couple and another for the children they were going to 
have, and in the space where the old tobacco factory had been they 
put in an extensive garden with all kinds of roses, which Florentino 
Ariza himself tended during his free time at dawn. The only thing they 
left intact, as a kind of testimony of gratitude to the past, was the 



notions shop. The back room where Florentino Ariza had slept they left 
as it had always been, with the hammock hanging and the writing 
table covered with untidy piles of books, but he moved to the room 
planned as the conjugal bedroom on the upper floor. This was the 
largest and airiest in the house, and it had an interior terrace where it 
was pleasant to sit at night because of the sea breeze and the scent of 
the rosebushes, but it was also the room that best reflected Florentino 
Ariza's Trappist severity. The plain whitewashed walls were rough and 
unadorned, and the only furniture was a prison cot, a night table with a 
candle in a bottle, an old wardrobe, and a washstand with its basin and 
bowl. 

The work took almost three years, and it coincided with a brief civic 
revival owing to the boom in river navigation and trade, the same 
factors that had maintained the city's greatness during colonial times 
and for more than two centuries had made her the gateway to 
America. But that was also the period when Transito Ariza manifested 
the first symptoms of her incurable disease. Her regular clients were 
older, paler, and more faded each time they came to the notions shop, 
and she did not recognize them after dealing with them for half a 
lifetime, or she confused the affairs of one with those of another, 
which was a very grave matter in a business like hers, in which no 
papers were signed to protect her honor or theirs, and one's word of 
honor was given and accepted as sufficient guarantee. At first it 
seemed she was growing deaf, but it soon became evident that her 
memory was trickling away. And so she liquidated her pawn business, 
the treasure in the jars paid for completing and furnishing the house, 
and still left over were many of the most valuable old jewels in the 
city, whose owners did not have funds to redeem them. 



During this period Florentine) Ariza had to attend to too many 
responsibilities at the same time, but his spirits never flagged as he 
sought to expand his work as a furtive hunter. After his erratic 
experience with the Widow Nazaret, which opened the door to street 
love, he continued to hunt the abandoned little birds of the night for 
several years, still hoping to find a cure for the pain of Fermina Daza. 
But by then he could no longer tell if his habit of fornicating without 
hope was a mental necessity or a simple vice of the body. His visits to 
the transient hotel became less frequent, not only because his interests 
lay elsewhere but because he did not like them to see him there under 
circumstances that were different from the chaste domesticity of the 
past. Nevertheless, in three emergency situations he had recourse to 
the simple strategy of an era before his time: he disguised his friends, 
who were afraid of being recognized, as men, and they walked into the 
hotel together as if they were two gentlemen out on the town. Yet on 
two of these occasions someone realized that he and his presumptive 
male companion did not go to the bar but to a room, and the already 
tarnished reputation of Florentino Ariza received the coup de grace. At 
last he stopped going there, except for the very few times he did so 
not to catch up on what he had missed but for just the opposite reason: 
to find a refuge where he could recuperate from his excesses. 
And it was just as well. No sooner did he leave his office at five in the 
afternoon than he began to hunt like a chicken hawk. At first he was 
content with what the night provided. He picked up serving girls in the 
parks, black women in the market, sophisticated young ladies from the 
interior on the beaches, gringas on the boats from New Orleans. He 
took them to the jetties where half the city also went after nightfall, he 
took them wherever he could, and sometimes even where he could 



not, and not infrequently he had to hurry into a dark entryway and do 
what he could, however he could do it, behind the gate. 
The lighthouse was always a blessed refuge in a storm, which he 
evoked with nostalgia in the dawn of his old age when he had 
everything settled, because it was a good place to be happy, above all 
at night, and he thought that something of his loves from that time 
flashed out to the sailors with every turn of the light. So that he 
continued to go there more than to any other spot, while his friend the 
lighthouse keeper was delighted to receive him with a simpleminded 
expression on his face that was the best guarantee of discretion for the 
frightened little birds. There was a house at the foot of the tower, close 
to the thunder of the waves breaking against the cliffs, where love was 
more intense because it seemed like a shipwreck. But Florentino Ariza 
preferred the light tower itself, late at night, because one could see the 
entire city and the trail of lights on the fishing boats at sea, and even 
in the distant swamps. 

It was in those days that he devised his rather simplistic theories 
concerning the relationship between a woman's appearance and her 
aptitude for love. He distrusted the sensual type, the ones who looked 
as if they could eat an alligator raw and tended to be the most passive 
in bed. The type he preferred was just the opposite: those skinny little 
tadpoles that no one bothered to turn around and look at in the street, 
who seemed to disappear when they took off their clothes, who made 
you feel sorry for them when their bones cracked at the first impact, 
and yet who could leave the man who bragged the most about his 
virility ready for the trashcan. He had made notes of these premature 
observations, intending to write a practical supplement to the Lovers' 
Companion, but the project met the same fate as the previous one 



after Ausencia Santander sent him tumbling with her old dog's wisdom, 
stood him on his head, tossed him up and threw him down, made him 
as good as new, shattered all his virtuous theories, and taught him the 
only thing he had to learn about love: that nobody teaches life 
anything. 

Ausencia Santander had had a conventional marriage for twenty years, 
which left her with three children who had married and had children in 
turn, so that she boasted of being the grandmother with the best bed 
in the city. It was never clear if she had abandoned her husband, or if 
he had abandoned her, or if they had abandoned each other at the 
same time, but he went to live with his regular mistress, and then she 
felt free, in the middle of the day and at the front door, to receive 
Rosendo de la Rosa, a riverboat captain whom she had often received 
in the middle of the night at the back door. Without giving the matter 
a second thought, he brought Florentino Ariza to meet her. 
He brought him for lunch. He also brought a demijohn of homemade 
aguardiente and ingredients of the highest quality for an epic 
sancocho, the kind that was possible only with chickens from the patio, 
meat with tender bones, rubbish-heap pork, and greens and 
vegetables from the towns along the river. Nevertheless, from the 
very first, Florentino Ariza was not as enthusiastic about the excellence 
of the cuisine or the exuberance of the lady of the house as he was 
about the beauty of the house itself. He liked her because of her 
house, bright and cool, with four large windows facing the sea and 
beyond that a complete view of the old city. He liked the quantity and 
the splendor of the things that gave the living room a confused and at 
the same time rigorous appearance, with all kinds of handcrafted 
objects that Captain Rosendo de la Rosa brought back from each trip 



until there was no room left for another piece. On the sea terrace, 
sitting on his private ring, was a cockatoo from Malaya, with 
unbelievable white plumage and a pensive tranquillity that gave one 
much to think about: it was the most beautiful animal that Florentino 
Ariza had ever seen. 

Captain Rosendo de la Rosa was enthusiastic about his guest's 
enthusiasm, and he told him in detail the history of each object. As he 
spoke he sipped aguardiente without pause. He seemed to be made of 
reinforced concrete: he was enormous, with hair all over his body 
except on his head, a mustache like a housepainter's brush, a voice 
like a capstan, which would have been his alone, and an exquisite 
courtesy. But not even his body could resist the way he drank. Before 
they sat down to the table he had finished half of the demijohn, and he 
fell forward onto the tray of glasses and bottles with a slow sound of 
demolition. Ausencia Santander had to ask Florentino Ariza to help her 
drag the inert body of the beached whale to bed and undress him as 
he slept. Then, in a flash of inspiration that they attributed to a 
conjunction of their stars, the two of them undressed in the next room 
without agreeing to, without even suggesting it or proposing it to each 
other, and for more than seven years they continued undressing 
wherever they could while the Captain was on a trip. There was no 
danger of his surprising them, because he had the good sailor's habit 
of advising the port of his arrival by sounding the ship's horn, even at 
dawn, first with three long howls for his wife and nine children, and 
then with two short, melancholy ones for his mistress. 
Ausencia Santander was almost fifty years old and looked it, but she 
had such a personal instinct for love that no homegrown or scientific 
theories could interfere with it. Florentino Ariza knew from the ship's 



itineraries when he could visit her, and he always went unannounced, 
whenever he wanted to, at any hour of the day or night, and never 
once was she not waiting for him. She would open the door as her 
mother had raised her until she was seven years old: stark naked, with 
an organdy ribbon in her hair. She would not let him take another step 
until she had undressed him, because she thought it was bad 
luck to have a clothed man in the house. This was the cause of 
constant discord with Captain Rosendo de la Rosa, because he had the 
superstitious belief that smoking naked brought bad luck, and at times 
he preferred to put off love rather than put out his inevitable Cuban 
cigar. On the other hand, Florentino Ariza was very taken with the 
charms of nudity, and she removed his clothes with sure delight as 
soon as she closed the door, not even giving him time to greet her, or 
to take off his hat or his glasses, kissing him and letting him kiss her 
with sharp-toothed kisses, unfastening his clothes from bottom to top, 
first the buttons of his fly, one by one after each kiss, then his belt 
buckle, and at the last his vest and shirt, until he was like a live fish 
that had been slit open from head to tail. Then she sat him in the 
living room and took off his boots, pulled on his trouser cuffs so that 
she could take off his pants while she removed his long underwear, 
and at last she undid the garters around his calves and took off his 
socks. Then Florentino Ariza stopped kissing her and letting her kiss 
him so that he could do the only thing he was responsible for in that 
precise ceremony: he took his watch and chain out of the buttonhole in 
his vest and took off his glasses and put them in his boots so he would 
be sure not to forget them. He always took that precaution, always 
without fail, whenever he undressed in someone else's house. 
As soon as he had done that, she attacked him without giving him time 



for anything else, there on the same sofa where she had just 
undressed him, and only on rare occasions in the bed. She mounted 
him and took control of all of him for all of her, absorbed in herself, 
her eyes closed, gauging the situation in her absolute inner darkness, 
advancing here, retreating there, correcting her invisible route, trying 
another, more intense path, another means of proceeding without 
drowning in the slimy marsh that flowed from her womb, droning like 
a horsefly as she asked herself questions and answered in her native 
jargon; where was that something in the shadows that only she knew 
about and that she longed for just for herself, until she succumbed 
without waiting for anybody, she fell alone into her abyss with a 
jubilant explosion of total victory that made the world tremble. 
Florentino Ariza was left exhausted, incomplete, floating in a puddle of 
their perspiration, but with the impression of being no more than an 
instrument of pleasure. He would say: "You treat me as if I were just 
anybody." She would roar with the laughter of a free female and say: 
"Not at all: as if you were nobody." He was left with the impression 
that she took away everything with mean-spirited greed, and his pride 
would rebel and he would leave the house determined never to return. 
But then he would wake for no reason in the middle of the night, and 
the memory of the self-absorbed love of Ausencia Santander was 
revealed to him for what it was: a pitfall of happiness that he despised 
and desired at the same time, but from which it was impossible to 
escape. 

One Sunday, two years after they met, the first thing she did when he 
arrived was to take off his glasses instead of undressing him, so that 
she could kiss him with greater ease, and this was how Florentino Ariza 
learned that she had begun to love him. Despite the fact that from the 



first day he had felt very comfortable in the house that he now loved 
as if it were his own, he had never stayed longer than two hours, and 
he had never slept there, and he had eaten there only once because 
she had given him a formal invitation. He went there, in fact, only for 
what he had come for, always bringing his only gift, a single rose, and 
then he would disappear until the next unforeseeable time. But on the 
Sunday when she took off his glasses to kiss him, in part because of 
that and in part because they fell asleep after gentle love-making, 
they spent the afternoon naked in the Captain's 
enormous bed. When he awoke from his nap, Florentino Ariza still 
remembered the shrieking of the cockatoo, whose strident calls belied 
his beauty. But the silence was diaphanous in the four o'clock heat, 
and through the bedroom window one could see the outline of the old 
city with the afternoon sun at its back, its golden domes, its sea in 
flames all the way to Jamaica. Ausencia Santander stretched out an 
adventurous hand, seeking the sleeping beast, but Florentino Ariza 
moved it away. He said: "Not now. I feel something strange, as if 
someone were watching us." She aroused the cockatoo again with her 
joyous laughter. She said: "Not even J onah's wife would swallow that 
story." Neither did she, of course, but she admitted it was a good one, 
and the two of them loved each other for a long time in silence without 
making love again. At five o'clock, with the sun still high, she jumped 
out of bed, naked as always and with the organdy ribbon in her hair, 
and went to find something to drink in the kitchen. But she had not 
taken a single step out of the bedroom when she screamed in horror. 
She could not believe it. The only objects left in the house were the 
lamps attached to the walls. All the rest, the signed furniture, the 
Indian rugs, the statues and the handwoven tapestries, the countless 



trinkets made of precious stones and metals, everything that had 
made hers one of the most pleasant and best decorated houses in the 
city, everything, even the sacred cockatoo, everything had vanished. It 
had been carried out through the sea terrace without disturbing their 
love. All that was left were empty rooms with the four open windows, 
and a message painted on the rear wall: This is what you get for 
fucking around. Captain Rosendo de la Rosa could never understand 
why Ausencia Santander did not report the robbery, or try to get in 
touch with the dealers in stolen goods, or permit her misfortune to be 
mentioned again. 

Florentino Ariza continued to visit her in the looted house, whose 
furnishings were reduced to three leather stools that the thieves forgot 
in the kitchen, and the contents of the bedroom where the two of them 
had been. But he did not visit her as often as before, not because of 
the desolation in the house, as she supposed and as she said to him, 
but because of the novelty of a mule-drawn trolley at the turn of the 
new century, which proved to be a prodigious and original nest of 
free-flying little birds. He rode it four times a day, twice to go to the 
office, twice to return home, and sometimes when his reading was 
real, and most of the time when it was pretense, he would take the 
first steps, at least, toward a future tryst. Later, when Uncle Leo XII 
put at his disposal a carriage drawn by two little gray mules with 
golden trappings, just like the one that belonged to President Rafael 
Nunez, he would long for those times on the trolley as the most fruitful 
of all his adventures in falconry. He was right: there is no worse 
enemy of secret love than a carriage waiting at the door. I n fact, he 
almost always left it hidden at his house and made his hawkish rounds 
On foot so that he would not leave wheel marks in the dust. That is 



why he evoked with such great nostalgia the old trolley with its 
emaciated mules covered with sores, in which a sideways glance was 
all one needed to know where love was. However, in the midst of so 
many tender memories, he could not elude his recollection of a 
helpless little bird whose name he never knew and with whom he 
spent no more than half a frenetic night, but that had been enough to 
ruin the innocent rowdiness of Carnival for him for the rest of his life. 
She had attracted his attention on the trolley for the fearlessness with 
which she traveled through the riotous public celebration. She could 
not have been more than twenty years old, and she did not seem to 
share the spirit of Carnival, unless she was disguised as an invalid: her 
hair was very light, long, and straight, hanging loose over her 
shoulders, and she wore a tunic of plain, unadorned linen. She was 
completely removed from the confusion of music in the streets, the 
handfuls of rice powder, the showers of aniline thrown at the 
passengers on the trolley, whose mules were whitened with cornstarch 
and wore flowered hats during those three days of madness. Taking 
advantage of the confusion, Florentino Ariza invited her to have an ice 
with him, because he did not think he could ask for anything more. 
She looked at him without surprise. She said: "I am happy to accept, 
but I warn you that I am crazy." He laughed at her witticism, and took 
her to see the parade of floats from the balcony of the ice cream shop. 
Then he put on a rented cape, and the two of them joined the dancing 
in the Plaza of the Customhouse, and enjoyed themselves like newborn 
sweethearts, for her indifference went to the opposite extreme in the 
uproar of the night: she danced like a professional, she was 
imaginative and daring in her revelry, and she had devastating charm. 
"You don't know the trouble you've gotten into with me," she shouted, 



laughing in the fever of Carnival. "I'm a crazy woman from the insane 
asylum." 

For Florentino Ariza, that night was a return to the innocent unruliness 
of adolescence, when he had not yet been wounded by love. But he 
knew, more from hearsay than from personal experience, that such 
easy happiness could not last very long. And so before the night began 
to degenerate, as it always did after prizes were distributed for the 
best costumes, he suggested to the girl that they go to the lighthouse 
to watch the sunrise. She accepted with pleasure, but she wanted to 
wait until after they had given out the prizes. 

Florentino Ariza was certain that the delay saved his life. In fact, the 
girl had indicated to him that they should leave for the lighthouse, 
when she was seized by two guards and a nurse from Divine 
Shepherdess Asylum. They had been looking for her since her escape 
at three o'clock that afternoon--they and the entire police force. She 
had decapitated a guard and seriously wounded two others with a 
machete that she had snatched away from the gardener because she 
wanted to go dancing at Carnival. It had not occurred to anyone that 
she might be dancing in the streets; they thought she would be hiding 
in one of the many houses where they had searched even the cisterns. 
It was not easy to take her away. She defended herself with a pair of 
gardening shears that she had hidden in her bodice, and six men were 
needed to put her in the strait jacket while the crowd jammed into the 
Plaza of the Customhouse applauded and whistled with glee in the 
belief that the bloody capture was one of many Carnival farces. 
Florentino Ariza was heartbroken, and beginning on Ash Wednesday he 
would walk down Divine Shepherdess Street with a box of English 
chocolates for her. He would stand and look at the inmates, who 



shouted all kinds of profanities and compliments at him through the 
windows, and he would show them the box of chocolates in case luck 
would have it that she, too, might look out at him through the iron 
bars. But he never saw her. Months later, as he was getting off the 
mule-drawn trolley, a little girl walking with her father asked him for a 
piece of chocolate from the box he was carrying in his hand. Her father 
reprimanded her and begged Florentino Ariza's pardon. But he gave 
the whole box to the child, thinking that the action would redeem him 
from all bitterness, and he soothed the father with a pat on the back. 
"They were for a love that has gone all to hell," he said. 
As a kind of compensation from fate, it was also in the mule-drawn 
trolley that Florentino Ariza met Leona Cassiani, who was the true 
woman in his life although neither of them ever knew it and they 
never made love. He had sensed her before he saw her as he was 
going home on the trolley at five o'clock; it was a tangible look that 
touched him as if it were a finger. He raised his eyes and saw her, at 
the far end of the trolley, but standing out with great clarity from the 
other passengers. She did not look away. On the contrary: she 
continued to look at him with such boldness that he could not help 
thinking what he thought: black, young, pretty, but a whore beyond 
the shadow of a doubt. He rejected her from his life, because he could 
not conceive of anything more contemptible than paying for love: he 
had never done it. 

Florentino Ariza got off at the Plaza of the Carriages, which was the 
end of the line, hurried through the labyrinth of commerce because his 
mother was expecting him at six, and when he emerged on the other 
side of the crowd, he heard the tapping heels of a loose woman on the 
paving stones and turned around so that he would be certain of what 



he already knew: it was she, dressed like the slave girls in engravings, 
with a skirt of veils that was raised with the gesture of a dancer when 
she stepped over the puddles in the streets, a low-cut top that left her 
shoulders bare, a handful of colored necklaces, and a white turban. He 
knew them from the transient hotel. It often happened that at six in 
the afternoon they were still eating breakfast, and then all they could 
do was to use sex as if it were a bandit's knife and put it to the throat 
of the first man they passed on the street: your prick or your life. As a 
final test, Florentino Ariza changed direction and went down the 
deserted Oil Lamp Alley, and she followed, coming closer and closer to 
him. Then he stopped, turned around, blocked her way on the 
sidewalk, and leaned on his umbrella with both hands. She stood 
facing him. 

"You made a mistake, good-looking," he said. "I don't do that." "Of 
course you do," she said. "One can see it in your face." 
Florentino Ariza remembered a phrase from his childhood, something 
that the family doctor, his godfather, had said regarding his chronic 
constipation: "The world is divided into those who can shit and those 
who cannot." On the basis of this dogma the Doctor had elaborated an 
entire theory of character, which he considered more accurate than 
astrology. But with what he had learned over the years, Florentino 
Ariza stated it another way: "The world is divided into those who screw 
and those who do not." He distrusted those who did not: when they 
strayed from the straight and narrow, it was something so unusual for 
them that they bragged about love as if they had just invented it. 
Those who did it often, on the other hand, lived for that alone. They 
felt so good that their lips were sealed as if they were tombs, because 
they knew that their lives depended on their discretion. They never 



spoke of their exploits, they confided in no one, they feigned 
indifference to the point where they earned the reputation of being 
impotent, or frigid, or above all timid fairies, as in the case of 
Florentino Ariza. But they took pleasure in the error because the error 
protected them. They formed a secret society, whose members 
recognized each other all over the world without need of a common 
language, which is why Florentino Ariza was not surprised by the girl's 
reply: she was one of them, and therefore she knew that he knew that 
she knew. 

It was the great mistake of his life, as his conscience was to remind 
him every hour of every day until the final day of his life. What she 
wanted from him was not love, least of all love that was paid for, but a 
job, any kind of job, at any salary, in the River Company of the 
Caribbean. Florentino Ariza felt so ashamed of his own conduct that he 
took her to the head of Personnel, who gave her the lowest-level job in 
the General Section, which she performed with seriousness, modesty, 
and dedication for three years. 

Ever since its founding, the R.C.C. had had its offices across from the 
river dock, and it had nothing in common with the port for ocean liners 
on the opposite side of the bay, or with the market pier on Las Animas 
Bay. The building was of wood, with a sloping tin roof, a single long 
balcony with columns at the front, and windows, covered with wire 
mesh, on all four sides through which one had complete views of the 
boats at the dock as if they were paintings hanging on the wall. When 
the German founders built it, they painted the tin roof red and the 
wooden walls a brilliant white, so that the building itself bore some 
resemblance to a riverboat. Later it was painted all blue, and at the 
time that Florentino Ariza began to work for the company it was a 



dusty shed of no definite color, and on the rusting roof there were 
patches of new tin plates over the original ones. Behind the building, in 
a gravel patio surrounded by chicken wire, stood two large warehouses 
of more recent construction, and at the back there was a closed sewer 
pipe, dirty and foul-smelling, where the refuse of a half a century of 
river navigation lay rotting: the debris of historic boats, from the early 
one with a single smokestack, christened by Simon Bolivar, to some so 
recent that they had electric fans in the cabins. Most of them had been 
dismantled for materials to be used in building other boats, but many 
were in such good condition that it seemed possible to give them a 
coat of paint and launch them without frightening away the iguanas or 
disturbing the foliage of the large yellow flowers that made them even 
more nostalgic. 

The Administrative Section was on the upper floor of the building, in 
small but comfortable and well-appointed offices similar to the cabins 
on the boats, for they had been built not by civil architects but by 
naval engineers. At the end of the corridor, like any employee, Uncle 
Leo XII dispatched his business in an office similar to all the others, 
the one exception being that every morning he found a glass vase 
filled with sweet-smelling flowers on his desk. On the ground floor was 
the Passenger Section, with a waiting room that had rustic benches and 
a counter for selling tickets and handling baggage. Last of all was the 
confusing General Section, its name alone suggesting the vagueness of 
its functions, where problems that had not been solved elsewhere in 
the company went to die an ignominious death. There sat Leona 
Cassiani, lost behind a student's desk surrounded by corn stacked for 
shipping and unresolved papers, on the day that Uncle Leo XII himself 
went to see what the devil he could think of to make the General 



Section good for something. After three hours of questions, theoretical 
assumptions, and concrete evidence, with all the employees in the 
middle of the room, he returned to his office tormented by the 
certainty that instead of a solution to so many problems, he had found 
just the opposite: new and different problems with no solution. 
The next day, when Florentino Ariza came into his office, he found a 
memorandum from Leona Cassiani, with the request that he study it 
and then show it to his uncle if he thought it appropriate. She was the 
only one who had not said a word during the inspection the previous 
afternoon. She had remained silent in full awareness of the worth of 
her position as a charity employee, but in the memorandum she noted 
that she had said nothing not because of negligence but out of respect 
for the hierarchies in the section. It had an alarming simplicity. Uncle 
Leo XII had proposed a thorough reorganization, but Leona Cassiani 
did not agree, for the simple reason that in reality the General Section 
did not exist: it was the dumping ground for annoying but minor 
problems that the other sections wanted to get rid of. As a 
consequence, the solution was to eliminate the General 
Section and return the problems to the sections where they had 
originated, to be solved there. 

Uncle Leo XI I did not have the slightest idea who Leona Cassiani was, 
and he could not remember having seen anyone who could be Leona 
Cassiani at the meeting on the previous afternoon, but when he read 
the memorandum he called her to his office and talked with her behind 
closed doors for two hours. They spoke about everything, in 
accordance with the method he used to learn about people. The 
memorandum showed simple common sense, and her suggestion, in 
fact, would produce the desired result. But Uncle Leo XII was not 



interested in that: he was interested in her. What most attracted his 
attention was that her only education after elementary school had 
been in the School of Millinery. Moreover, she was learning English at 
home, using an accelerated method with no teacher, and for the past 
three months she had been taking evening classes in typing, a new 
kind of work with a wonderful future, as they used to say about the 
telegraph and before that the steam engine. 

When she left the meeting, Uncle Leo XI I had already begun to call her 
what he would always call her: my namesake Leona. He had decided 
to eliminate with the stroke of a pen the troublesome section and 
distribute the problems so that they could be solved by the people who 
had created them, in accordance with Leona Cassiani's suggestion, and 
he had created a new position for her, which had no title or specific 
duties but in effect was his Personal Assistant. That afternoon, after the 
inglorious burial of the General Section, Uncle Leo XII asked Florentino 
Ariza where he had found Leona Cassiani, and he answered with the 
truth. 

"Well, then, go back to the trolley and bring me every girl like her that 
you find," his uncle said. "With two or three more, we'll salvage your 
galleon." 

Florentino Ariza took this as one of Uncle Leo XM's typical jokes, but 
the next day he found himself without the carriage that had been 
assigned to him six months earlier, and that was taken back now so 
that he could continue to look for hidden talent on the trolleys. Leona 
Cassiani, for her part, soon overcame her initial scruples, and she 
revealed what she had kept hidden with so much astuteness during her 
first three years. I n three more years she had taken control of 
everything, and in the next four she stood on the threshold of the 



General Secretaryship, but she refused to cross it because it was only 

one step below Florentino Ariza. Until then she had taken orders from 

him, and she wanted to continue to do so, although the fact of the 

matter was that Florentino himself did not realize that he took orders 

from her. Indeed, he had done nothing more on the Board of Directors 

than follow her suggestions, which helped him to move up despite the 

traps set by his secret enemies. 

Leona Cassiani had a diabolical talent for handling secrets, and she 

always knew how to be where she had to be at the right time. She was 

dynamic and quiet, with a wise sweetness. But when it was 

indispensable she would, with sorrow in her heart, give free rein to a 

character of solid iron. However, she never did that for herself. Her 

only objective was to clear the ladder at any cost, with blood if 

necessary, so that Florentino Ariza could move up to the position he 

had proposed for himself without calculating his own strength very 

well. She would have done this in any event, of course, because she 

had an indomitable will to power, but the truth was that she did it 

consciously, out of simple gratitude. Her determination was so great 

that Florentino Ariza himself lost his way in her schemes, and on one 

unfortunate occasion he attempted to block her, thinking that she was 

trying to do the same to him. Leona Cassiani put him in his place. 

"Make no mistake," she said to him. "I will withdraw from all this 

whenever you wish, but think it over carefully." 

Florentino Ariza, who in fact had never thought about it, thought about 

it then, as well as he could, and he surrendered his weapons. The truth 

is that in the midst of that sordid internecine battle in a company in 

perpetual crisis, in the midst of his disasters as a tireless falconer and 

the more and more uncertain dream of Fermina Daza, the impassive 



Florentine) Ariza had not had a moment of inner peace as he confronted 
the fascinating spectacle of that fierce black woman smeared with shit 
and love in the fever of battle. Many times he regretted in secret that 
she had not been in fact what he thought she was on the afternoon he 
met her, so that he could wipe his ass with his principles and make 
love to her even if it cost nuggets of shining gold. For Leona Cassiani 
was still the woman she had been that afternoon on the trolley, with 
the same clothes, worthy of an impetuous runaway slave, her mad 
turbans, her earrings and bracelets made of bone, her necklaces, her 
rings with fake stones on every finger: a lioness in the streets. The 
years had changed her appearance very little, and that little became 
her very well. She moved in splendid maturity, her feminine charms 
were even more exciting, and her ardent African body was becoming 
more compact. Florentino Ariza had made no propositions to her in ten 
years, a hard penance for his original error, and she had helped him in 
everything except that. 

One night when he had worked late, something he did often after his 
mother's death, Florentino Ariza was about to leave when he saw a 
light burning in Leona Cassiani's office. He opened the door without 
knocking, and there she was: alone at her desk, absorbed, serious, 
with the new eyeglasses that gave her an academic air. Florentino 
Ariza realized with joyful fear that the two of them were alone in the 
building, the piers were deserted, the city asleep, the night eternal 
over the dark sea, and the horn mournful on the ship that would not 
dock for another hour. Florentino Ariza leaned both hands on his 
umbrella, just as he had done in Oil Lamp Alley when he barred her 
way, only now he did it to hide the trembling in his knees. 
"Tell me something, lionlady of my soul," he said. "When are we ever 



going to stop this?" 

She took off her glasses without surprise, with absolute self-control, 

and dazzled him with her solar laugh. It was the first time she used the 

familiar form of address with him. 

"Ay, Florentino Ariza," she said, "I've been sitting here for ten years 

waiting for you to ask me that." 

It was too late: the opportunity had been there with her in the 

mule-drawn trolley, it had always been with her there on the chair 

where she was sitting, but now it was gone forever. The truth was that 

after all the dirty tricks she had done for him, after so much sordidness 

endured for him, she had moved on in life and was far beyond his 

twenty-year advantage in age: she had grown too old for him. She 

loved him so much that instead of deceiving him she preferred to 

continue loving him, although she had to let him know in a brutal 

manner. 

"No," she said to him. "I would feel as if I were going to bed with the 

son I never had." Florentino Ariza was left with the nagging suspicion 

that this was not her last word. He believed that when a woman says 

no, she is waiting to be urged before making her final decision, but 

with her he could not risk making the same mistake twice. He 

withdrew 

without protest, and even with a certain grace, which was not easy for 

him. From that night on, any cloud there might have been between 

them was dissipated without bitterness, and Florentino Ariza 

understood at last that it is possible to be a woman's friend and not go 

to bed with her. 

Leona Cassiani was the only human being to whom Florentino Ariza 

was tempted to reveal the secret of Fermina Daza. The few people who 



had known were beginning to forget for reasons over which they had 

no control. Three of them were, beyond the shadow of any doubt, in 

the grave: his mother, whose memory had been erased long before 

she died; Gala Placidia, who had died of old age in the service of one 

who had been like a daughter to her; and the unforgettable Escolastica 

Daza, the woman who had brought him the first love letter he had ever 

received in his life, hidden in her prayerbook, and who could not still 

be alive after so many years. Lorenzo Daza (no one knew if he was 

alive or dead) might have revealed the secret to Sister Franca de la 

Luz when he was trying to stop Fermina Daza's expulsion, but it was 

unlikely that it had gone any further. That left the eleven telegraph 

operators in Hildebranda Sanchez's province who had handled 

telegrams with their complete names and exact addresses, and 

Hildebranda Sanchez herself, and her court of indomitable cousins. 

What Florentino Ariza did not know was that Dr. Juvenal Urbino should 
have been included on the list. Hildebranda Sanchez had revealed the 
secret to him during one of her many visits in the early years. But she 
did so in such a casual way and at such an inopportune moment that it 
did not go in one of Dr. Urbino's ears and out the other, as she 
thought; it did not go in at all. Hildebranda had mentioned Florentino 
Ariza as one of the secret poets who, in her opinion, might win the 
Poetic Festival. Dr. Urbino could not remember who he was, and she 
told him--she did not need to, but there was no hint of malice in 
it--that he was Fermina Daza's only sweetheart before she married. 
She told him, convinced that it had been something so innocent and 
ephemeral that in fact it was rather touching. Dr. Urbino replied 
without looking at her: "I did not know that fellow was a poet." And 
then he wiped him from his memory, because among other things, his 
profession had accustomed him to the ethical management of 
forgetfulness. 



Florentine) Ariza observed that, with the exception of his mother, the 
keepers of the secret belonged to Fermina Daza's world. I n his, he was 
alone with the crushing weight of a burden that he had often needed to 
share, but until then there had been no one worthy of so much trust. 
Leona Cassiani was the only one, and all he needed was the 
opportunity and the means. This was what he was thinking on the hot 
summer afternoon when Dr. Juvenal Urbino climbed the steep stairs of 
the R.C.C., paused on each step in order to survive the three o'clock 
heat, appeared in Florentino Ariza's office, panting and soaked with 
perspiration down to his trousers, and gasped with his last breath: "I 
believe a cyclone is coming." Florentino Ariza had seen him there 
many times, asking for Uncle Leo XII, but never until now had it 
seemed so clear to him that this uninvited guest had something to do 
with his life. 

This was during the time that Dr. J uvenal Urbino had overcome the 
pitfalls of his profession, and was going from door to door, almost like 
a beggar with his hat in his hand, asking for contributions to his artistic 
enterprises. Uncle Leo XII had always been one of his most faithful 
and generous contributors, but just at that moment he had begun his 
daily ten-minute siesta, sitting in the swivel chair at his desk. 
Florentino Ariza asked Dr. Juvenal Urbino to please wait in his office, 
which was next to Uncle Leo XII 's and, in a certain sense, served as his 
waiting room. 

They had seen each other on various occasions, but they had never 
before been face to face as they were now, and once again Florentino 
Ariza experienced the nausea of feeling himself inferior. The ten 
minutes were an eternity, during which he stood up three times in the 
hope that his uncle had awakened early, and he drank an entire 



thermos of black coffee. Dr. Urbino refused to drink even a single cup. 
He said: "Coffee is poison." And he continued to chat about one thing 
and another and did not even care if anyone was listening to him. 
Florentino Ariza could not bear his natural distinction, the fluidity and 
precision of his words, his faint scent of camphor, his personal charm, 
the easy and elegant manner in which he made his most frivolous 
sentences seem essential only because he had said them. Then, 
without warning, the Doctor changed the subject. 
"Do you like music?" 

He was taken by surprise. In reality, Florentino Ariza attended every 
concert and opera performed in the city, but he did not feel capable of 
engaging in a critical or wellinformed discussion. He had a weakness 
for popular music, above all sentimental waltzes, whose similarity to 
the ones he had composed as an adolescent, or to his secret verses, 
could not be denied. He had only to hear them once, and then for 
nights on end there was no power in heaven or earth that could shake 
the melody out of his head. But that would not be a serious answer to 
a serious question put to him by a specialist. 
"I like Gardel," he said. 

Dr. Urbino understood. "I see," he said. "He is popular." And he slipped 
into a recounting of his many new projects which, as always, had to be 
realized without official backing. He called to his attention the 
disheartening inferiority of the performances that could be heard here 
now, compared with the splendid ones of the previous century. That 
was true: he had spent a year selling subscriptions to bring the 
Cortot-Casals-Thibaud trio to the Dramatic Theater, and there was no 
one in the government who even knew who they were, while this very 
month there were no seats left for the Ramon Caralt company that 



performed detective dramas, for the Operetta and Zarzuela Company 
of Don Manolo de la Presa, for the Santanelas, ineffable mimics, 
illusionists, and artistes, who could change their clothes on stage in the 
wink of an eye, for Danyse D'Altaine, advertised as a former dancer 
with the Folies-Bergere, and even for the abominable Ursus, a Basque 
madman who took on a fighting bull all by himself. There was no 
reason to complain, however, if the Europeans themselves were once 
again setting the bad example of a barbaric war when we had begun to 
live in peace after nine civil wars in half a century, which, if the truth 
were told, were all one war: always the same war. What most 
attracted Florentino Ariza's attention in that intriguing speech was the 
possibility of reviving the Poetic Festival, the most renowned and 
long-lasting of the enterprises that Dr. J uvenal Urbino had conceived in 
the past. He had to bite his tongue to keep from telling him that he 
had been an assiduous participant in the annual competition that had 
eventually interested famous poets, not only in the rest of the country 
but in other nations of the Caribbean as well. 
No sooner had the conversation begun than the hot, steamy air 
suddenly cooled and a storm of crosswinds shook doors and windows 
with great blasts, while the office groaned down to its foundations like 
a sailing ship set adrift. Dr. Juvenal Urbino did not seem to notice. He 
made some casual reference to the lunatic cyclones of J une and then, 
out of the blue, he began to speak of his wife. He considered her not 
only his most enthusiastic collaborator, but the very soul of his 
endeavors. He said: "Without her I would be nothing." Florentino Ariza 
listened to him, impassive, nodding his agreement with a slight motion 
of his head, not daring to say anything for fear his voice would betray 
him. Two or three sentences more, however, were enough for him to 



understand that Dr. J uvenal Urbino, in the midst of so many absorbing 
commitments, still had more than enough time to adore his wife 
almost as much as he did, and that truth stunned him. But he could not 
respond as he would have liked, because then his heart played one of 
those whorish tricks that only hearts can play: it revealed to him that 
he and this man, whom he had always considered his personal enemy, 
were victims of the same fate and shared the hazards of a common 
passion; they were two animals yoked together. For the first time in 
the interminable twenty-seven years that he had been waiting, 
Florentino Ariza could not endure the pangs of grief at the thought that 
this admirable man would have to die in order for him to be happy. 
The cyclone passed by at last, but in fifteen minutes its gusting 
northwest winds had devastated the neighborhoods by the swamps and 
caused severe damage in half the city. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, gratified 
once again by the generosity of Uncle Leo XI I , did not wait for the 
weather to clear, and without thinking he accepted the umbrella that 
Florentino Ariza lent him for walking to his carriage. But he did not 
mind. On the contrary: he was happy thinking about what Fermina 
Daza would think when she learned who the owner of the umbrella 
was. He was still troubled by the unsettling interview when Leona 
Cassiani came into his office, and this seemed to him a unique 
opportunity to stop beating about the bush and to reveal his secret, as 
if he were squeezing a boil that would not leave him in peace: it was 
now or never. He began by asking her what she thought of Dr. Juvenal 
Urbino. She answered almost without thinking: "He is a man who does 
many things, too many perhaps, but I believe that no one knows what 
he thinks." Then she reflected, shredding the eraser on a pencil with 
her long, sharp, black woman's teeth, and at last she shrugged her 



shoulders to put an end to a matter that did not concern her. 

"That may be the reason he does so many things," she said, "so that 

he will not have to think." 

Florentino Ariza tried to keep her with him. "What hurts me is that he 
has to die," he said. "Everybody has to die," she said. 
"Yes," he said, "but he more than anyone else." 

She understood none of it: she shrugged her shoulders again without 

speaking and left. Then Florentino Ariza knew that some night, 

sometime in the future, in a joyous bed with Fermina Daza, he was 

going to tell her that he had not revealed the secret of his love, not 

even to the one person who had earned the right to know it. No: he 

would never reveal it, not even to Leona Cassiani, not because he did 

not want to open the chest where he had kept it so carefully hidden for 

half his life, but because he realized only then that he had lost the 

key. 

That, however, was not the most staggering event of the afternoon. He 

still had the nostalgic memory of his youth, his vivid recollection of the 

Poetic Festival, whose thunder sounded throughout the Antilles every 

April 15. He was always one of the protagonists, but always, as in 

almost everything he did, a secret protagonist. He had participated 

several times since the inaugural competition, and he had never 

received even honorable mention. But that did not matter to him, for 

he did compete not out of ambition for the prize but because the 

contest held an additional attraction for him: in the first session 

Fermina Daza had opened the sealed envelopes and announced the 

names of the winners, and then it was established that she would 

continue to do so in the years that followed. 

Hidden in the darkness of an orchestra seat, a fresh camellia in the 



buttonhole of his lapel throbbing with the strength of his desire, 
Florentino Ariza saw Fermina Daza open the three sealed envelopes on 
the stage of the old National Theater on the night of the first Festival. 
He asked himself what was going to happen in her heart when she 
discovered that he was the winner of the Golden Orchid. He was certain 
she would recognize his handwriting, and that then she would evoke 
the afternoons of embroidery under the almond trees in the little park, 
the scent of faded gardenias in his letters, the private Waltz of the 
Crowned Goddess at windblown daybreak. It did not happen. Even 
worse, the Golden Orchid, the most sought-after prize among the 
nation's poets, was awarded to a Chinese immigrant. The public 
scandal provoked by that unheard-of decision threw doubts on the 
seriousness of the competition. But the decision was correct, and the 
unanimity of the judges had its justification in the excellence of the 
sonnet. 

No one believed that the author was the Chinese who received the 
prize. At the end of the last century, fleeing the scourge of yellow 
fever that devastated Panama during the construction of the railroad 
between the two oceans, he had arrived along with many others who 
stayed here until they died, living in Chinese, reproducing in Chinese, 
and looking so much alike that no one could tell one from the other. At 
first there were no more than ten, some of them with their wives and 
children and edible dogs, but in a few years four narrow streets in the 
slums along the port were overflowing with other, unexpected Chinese, 
who came into the country without leaving a trace in the customs 
records. Some of the young ones turned into venerable patriarchs with 
so much haste that no one could explain how they had time to grow 
old. I n the popular view they were divided into two kinds: bad Chinese 



and good Chinese. The bad ones were those in the lugubrious 
restaurants along the waterfront, where one was as likely to eat like a 
king as to die a sudden death at the table, sitting before a plate of rat 
meat with sunflowers, and which were thought to be nothing more than 
fronts for white slavery and many other kinds of traffic. The good ones 
were the Chinese in the laundries, heirs of a sacred knowledge, who 
returned one's shirts cleaner than new, with collars and cuffs like 
recently ironed Communion wafers. The man who defeated 
seventy-two well-prepared rivals in the Poetic Festival was one of 
these good Chinese. 

When a bewildered Fermina Daza read out the name, no one 
understood it, not only because it was an unusual name but because no 
one knew for certain what Chinese were called. But it was not 
necessary to think about it very much, because the victorious Chinese 
walked from the back of the theater with that celestial smile Chinese 
wear when they come home early. He had been so sure of victory that 
he had put on a yellow silk robe, appropriate to the rites of spring, in 
order to accept the prize. He received the eighteen-carat Golden Orchid 
and kissed it with joy in the midst of the thundering jeers of the 
incredulous. He did not react. He waited in the middle of the stage, as 
imperturbable as the apostle of a Divine Providence less dramatic than 
ours, and as soon as it was quiet he read the winning poem. No one 
understood him. But when the new round of jeers and whistles was 
over, an impassive Fermina Daza read it again, in her hoarse, 
suggestive voice, and amazement reigned after the first line. It was a 
perfect sonnet in the purest Parnassian tradition, and through it there 
wafted a breath of inspiration that revealed the involvement of a 
master hand. The only possible explanation was that one of the great 



poets had devised the joke in order to ridicule the Poetic Festival, and 
that the Chinese had been a party to it and was determined to keep 
the secret until the day he died. The Commercial Daily, our traditional 
newspaper, tried to save our civic honor with an erudite and rather 
confused essay concerning the antiquity and cultural influence of the 
Chinese in the Caribbean, and the right they had earned to participate 
in Poetic Festivals. The author of the essay did not doubt that the 
writer of the sonnet was in fact who he said he was, and he defended 
him in a straightforward manner, beginning with the title itself: "All 
Chinese Are Poets." The instigators of the plot, if there was one, rotted 
in their graves along with the secret. For his part, the Chinese who had 
won died without confession at an Oriental age and was buried with the 
Golden Orchid in his coffin, but also with the bitterness of never having 
achieved the only thing he wanted in his life, which was recognition as 
a poet. On his death, the press recalled the forgotten incident of the 
Poetic Festival and reprinted the sonnet with a Modernist vignette of 
fleshy maidens and gold cornucopias, and the guardian angels of 
poetry took advantage of the opportunity to clarify matters: the sonnet 
seemed so bad to the younger generation that no one could doubt any 
longer that it had, in fact, been composed by the dead Chinese. 
Florentino Ariza always associated that scandalous event with the 
memory of an opulent stranger who sat beside him. He had noticed 
her at the beginning of the ceremony, but then he had forgotten her in 
the frightful suspense of anticipation. She attracted his attention 
because of her mother-of-pearl whiteness, her happy plump woman's 
scent, her immense soprano's bosom crowned by an artificial 
magnolia. She wore a very close-fitting black velvet dress, as black as 
her eager warm eyes, and her hair, caught at the nape of her neck 



with a gypsy comb, was blacker still. She wore pendant earrings, a 

matching necklace, and identical rings, shaped like sparkling roses, on 

several fingers. A beauty mark had been drawn with pencil on her 

right cheek. I n the din of the final applause, she looked at Florentino 

Ariza with sincere grief. 

"Believe me, my heart goes out to you," she said to him. 

Florentino Ariza was amazed, not because of the condolences, which he 

in fact deserved, but because of his overwhelming astonishment that 

anyone knew his secret. She explained: "I knew because of how the 

flower trembled in your lapel as they opened the envelopes." She 

showed him the velvet magnolia in her hand, and she opened her 

heart to him. 

"That is why I took off mine," she said. 

She was on the verge of tears because of his defeat, but Florentino 

Ariza raised her spirits with his instincts of a nocturnal hunter. 

"Let us go someplace where we can cry together," he said. 

He accompanied her to her house. At the door, since it was almost 

midnight and there was no one on the street, he persuaded her to 

invite him in for a brandy while they looked at the scrapbooks and 

photograph albums, containing over ten years of public events, which 

she had told him she owned. It was an old trick even then, but this 

time it was guileless, because she was the one who had talked about 

her albums as they walked from the National Theater. They went in. 

The first thing Florentino Ariza observed in the living room was that 

the door to the only bedroom was open, and that the bed was huge 

and luxurious with a brocaded quilt and a headboard with brass 

foliage. That disturbed him. She must have realized it, for she crossed 

the living room and closed the bedroom door. Then she invited him to 



sit down on a flowered cretonne sofa where a sleeping cat was lying, 
and she placed her collection of albums on the coffee table. Florentino 
Ariza began to leaf through them in an unhurried way, thinking more 
about his next step than about what he was seeing, and then he looked 
up and saw that her eyes were full of tears. He advised her to cry to 
her heart's content, and to feel no shame, for there was no greater 
relief than weeping, but he suggested that she loosen her bodice first. 
He hurried to help her, because her bodice was tightly fastened in the 
back with a long closure of crossed laces. He did not have to unlace 
them all, for the bodice burst open from sheer internal pressure, and 
her astronomical bosom was able to breathe freely. 
Florentino Ariza, who had never lost the timidity of a novice even in 
comfortable circumstances, risked a superficial caress on her neck with 
the tips of his fingers, and she writhed and moaned like a spoiled child 
and did not stop crying. Then he kissed her on the same spot, just as 
softly, and he could not kiss her a second time because she turned 
toward him with all her monumental body, eager and warm, and they 
rolled in an embrace on the floor. The cat on the sofa awoke with a 
screech and jumped on top of them. They groped like desperate 
virgins and found each other any way they could, wallowing in the torn 
albums, fully dressed, soaked with sweat, and more concerned with 
avoiding the furious claws of the cat than with the disastrous love they 
were making. But beginning the following night, their scratches still 
bleeding, they continued to make love for several years. 
When he realized that he had begun to love her, she was in the 
fullness of her years, and he was approaching his thirtieth birthday. 
Her name was Sara Noriega, and she had enjoyed fifteen minutes of 
fame in her youth when she won a competition with a collection of 



poems about love among the poor, a book that was never published. 
She was a teacher of deportment and civics in the public schools, and 
she lived on her salary in a rented flat in the motley Sweethearts' 
Mews in the old Gethsemane District. She had had several occasional 
lovers, but none with intentions of matrimony, because it was difficult 
for a man of her time and place to marry a woman he had taken to 
bed. Nor did she cherish that dream again after her first formal fiance, 
whom she loved with the almost demented passion of which one is 
capable at the age of eighteen, broke the engagement one week 
before the date they had set for the wedding, and left her to wander 
the limbo of abandoned brides. Or of used goods, as they used to say 
in those days. And yet that first experience, although cruel and 
short-lived, did not leave her bitter; rather, she had the overwhelming 
conviction that with or without marriage, or God, or the law, life was 
not worth living without a man in her bed. What Florentino Ariza liked 
best about her was that in order to reach the heights of glory, she had 
to suck on an infant's pacifier while they made love. Eventually they 
had a string of them, in every size, shape, and color they could find in 
the market, and Sara Noriega hung them on the headboard so she 
could reach them without looking in her moments of extreme urgency. 
Although she was as free as he was, and perhaps would not have been 
opposed to making their relationship public, from the very first 
Florentino Ariza considered it a clandestine adventure. He would slip in 
by the back door, almost always very late at night, and sneak away on 
tiptoe just before dawn. He knew as well as she that in a crowded and 
subdivided building like hers the neighbors had to know more than 
they pretended. But although it was a mere formality, that was how 
Florentino Ariza was, how he would be with all women for the rest of 



his life. He never made a slip, with her or with any other woman; he 
never betrayed their confidence. He did not exaggerate: on only one 
occasion did he leave a compromising trace or written evidence, and 
this might have cost him his life. In truth, he always behaved as if he 
were the eternal husband of Fermina Daza, an unfaithful husband but a 
tenacious one, who fought endlessly to free himself from his servitude 
without causing her the displeasure of a betrayal. 
Such secretiveness could not flourish without misapprehensions. 
Transito Ariza died in the conviction that the son she had conceived in 
love and raised for love was immune to any kind of love because of 
his first youthful misfortune. But many less benevolent people who 
were very close to him, who were familiar with his mysterious 
character and his fondness for mystic ceremonies and strange lotions, 
shared the suspicion that he was immune not to love but only to 
women. Florentino Ariza knew it and never did anything to disprove it. 
It did not worry Sara Noriega either. Like the countless other women 
who loved him, and even those who gave and received pleasure 
without loving him, she accepted him for what he really was: a man 
passing through. 

He eventually showed up at her house at any hour, above all on 
Sunday mornings, the most peaceful time. She would leave whatever 
she was doing, no matter what it was, and devote her entire body to 
trying to make him happy in the enormous mythic bed that was always 
ready for him, and in which she never permitted the invocation of 
liturgical formalisms. Florentino Ariza did not understand how a single 
woman without a past could be so wise in the ways of men, or how she 
could move her sweet porpoise body with as much lightness and 
tenderness as if she were moving under water. She would defend 



herself, saying that love, no matter what else it might be, was a 
natural talent. She would say: "You are either born knowing how, or 
you never know." Florentino Ariza writhed with retrogressive jealousy, 
thinking that perhaps she had more of a past than she pretended, but 
he had to swallow everything she said because he told her, as he told 
them all, that she had been his only lover. Among many other things 
that he did not like, he had to resign himself to having the furious cat 
in bed with them, although Sara Noriega had his claws removed so he 
would not tear them apart while they made love. 
However, almost as much as rolling in bed until they were exhausted, 
she liked to devote the aftermath of love to the cult of poetry. She had 
an astonishing memory for the sentimental verses of her own time, 
which were sold in the street in pamphlet form for two centavos as 
soon as they were written, and she also pinned on the walls the poems 
she liked most, so that she could read them aloud whenever she 
wished. She had written versions of the deportment and civics texts in 
hendecasyllabic couplets, like those used for spelling, but she could not 
obtain official approval for them. Her declamatory passion was such 
that at times she continued to shout her recitation as they made love, 
and Florentino Ariza had to force a pacifier into her mouth, as one did 
with children to make them stop crying. 

I n the plenitude of their relationship, Florentino Ariza had asked 
himself which of the two was love: the turbulent bed or the peaceful 
Sunday afternoons, and Sara Noriega calmed him with the simple 
argument that love was everything they did naked. She said: "Spiritual 
love from the waist up and physical love from the waist down." Sara 
Noriega thought this definition would be good for a poem about 
divided love, which they wrote together and which she submitted to 



the Fifth Poetic Festival, convinced that no 

participant had ever presented such an original poem. But she lost 
again. 

She was in a rage as Florentino Ariza accompanied her to her house. 
For some reason she could not explain, she was convinced that 
Fermina Daza had plotted against her so that her poem would not win 
first prize. Florentino Ariza paid no attention to her. He had been in a 
somber mood ever since the awarding of the prizes, for he had not 
seen Fermina Daza in a long time, and that night he had the 
impression that she had undergone a profound change: for the first 
time one could tell just by looking at her that she was a mother. This 
came as no surprise to him, for he knew that her son was already in 
school. However, her maternal age had never seemed so apparent to 
him as it did that night, as much for the size of her waist and the slight 
shortness of breath when she walked as for the break in her voice 
when she read the list of prizewinners. 

I n an attempt to document his memories, he leafed through the 
albums of the Poetic Festivals while Sara Noriega prepared something 
to eat. He saw magazine photographs in color, yellowing postcards of 
the sort sold in arcades for souvenirs, and it was a kind of ghostly 
review of the fallacy of his own life. Until that time he had maintained 
the fiction that it was the world that was changing, and its customs and 
styles: everything but her. But that night he saw for the first time in a 
conscious way how Fermina Daza's life was passing, and how his was 
passing, while he did nothing more than wait. He had never spoken 
about her to anyone, because he knew he was incapable or saying her 
name without everyone's noticing the pallor of his lips. But that night, 
as he looked through the albums as he had done on so many other 



evenings of Sunday tedium, Sara Noriega made one of those casual 
observations that freeze the blood. 
"She's a whore," she said. 

She said it as she walked past him and saw a print of Fermina Daza 
disguised as a black panther at a masquerade ball, and she did not 
have to mention anyone by name for Florentino Ariza to know whom 
she was talking about. Fearing a revelation that would shake his very 
life, he hurried to a cautious defense. He objected that he knew 
Fermina Daza only from a distance, that they had never gone further 
than formal greetings, that he had no information about her private 
life, but was certain she was an admirable woman who had come out 
of nowhere and risen to the top by virtue of her own merits. 
"By virtue of marrying a man she does not love for money," 
interrupted Sara Noriega. "That's the lowest kind of whore." His mother 
had told Florentino Ariza the same thing, with less crudeness but with 
the same moral rigidity, when she tried to console him for his 
misfortunes. Shaken to the very core, he could find no appropriate 
response to Sara Noriega's harshness, and he attempted to change the 
subject. But Sara Noriega would not allow that to happen until she had 
given vent to her feelings. I n a flash of inspiration that she could not 
have explained, she was convinced that Fermina Daza had been the 
one behind the conspiracy to cheat her of the prize. There was no 
reason to think so: they did not know each other, they had never met, 
and Fermina Daza had nothing to do with the decision of the judges 
even though she was privy to their secrets. Sara Noriega said in a 
categorical manner: "We women intuit these things." And that ended 
the discussion. 
From that moment on, Florentino Ariza began to see her with different 



eyes. The years were passing for her too. Her abundant sexuality was 
withering without glory, her lovemaking was slowed by her sobbing, 
and her eyelids were beginning to darken with old bitterness. She was 
yesterday's flower. Besides, in her fury at the defeat, she had lost 
count of her brandies. It was not her night: while they were eating 
their reheated coconut rice, she tried to establish how much each of 
them had contributed to the losing poem, in order to determine how 
many petals of the Golden Orchid would have gone to each one. This 
was not the first time they had amused themselves with Byzantine 
competitions, but he took advantage of the opportunity to speak 
through his own newly opened wound, and they became entangled in a 
mean-spirited argument that stirred up in both of them the rancor of 
almost five years of divided love. 

At ten minutes before twelve, Sara Noriega climbed up on a chair to 
wind the pendulum clock, and she reset it on the hour, perhaps trying 
to tell him without saying so that it was time to leave. Then Florentino 
Ariza felt an urgent need to put a definitive end to that loveless 
relationship, and he looked for the opportunity to be the one to take 
the initiative: as he would always do. Praying that Sara Noriega would 
let him into her bed so that he could tell her no, that everything was 
over, he asked her to sit next to him when she finished winding the 
clock. But she preferred to keep her distance in the visitor's easy chair. 
Then Florentino Ariza extended his index finger, wet with brandy, so 
that she could suck it, as she had liked to do in the past during their 
preambles to love. She refused. 
"Not now," she said. "I'm expecting someone." 

Ever since his rejection by Fermina Daza, Florentino Ariza had learned 
to always keep the final decision for himself. I n less bitter 



circumstances he would have persisted in his pursuit of Sara Noriega, 
certain of ending the evening rolling in bed with her, for he was 
convinced that once a woman goes to bed with a man, she will 
continue to go to bed with him whenever he desires, as long as he 
knows how to move her to passion each time. He had endured 
everything because of that conviction, he had overlooked everything, 
even the dirtiest dealings in love, so that he would not have to grant to 
any woman born of woman the opportunity to make the final decision. 
But that night he felt so humiliated that he gulped down the brandy in 
a single swallow, doing all he could to display anger, and left without 
saying goodbye. They never saw each other again. 
The relationship with Sara Noriega was one of Florentino Ariza's 
longest and most stable affairs, although it was not his only one during 
those five years. When he realized that he felt happy with her, above 
all in bed, but that she would never replace Fermina Daza, he had 
another outbreak of his nights as a solitary hunter, and he arranged 
matters so that he could portion out his time and strength as far as 
they would go. Sara Noriega, however, achieved the miracle of curing 
him for a time. At least now he could live without seeing Fermina 
Daza, instead of interrupting whatever he was doing at any hour of the 
day to search for her along the uncertain pathways of his 
presentiments, on the most unlikely streets, in unreal places where she 
could not possibly be, wandering without reason, with a longing in his 
breast that gave him no rest until he saw her, even for an instant. The 
break with Sara Noriega, however, revived his dormant grief, and 
once again he felt as he did on those afternoons of endless reading in 
the little park, but this time it was exacerbated by his urgent need for 
Dr. J uvenal Urbino to die. 



He had known for a long time that he was predestined to make a 
widow happy, and that she would make him happy, and that did not 
worry him. On the contrary: he was prepared. After having known so 
many of them during his incursions as a solitary hunter, Florentino 
Ariza had come to realize that the world was full of happy widows. He 
had seen them go mad with grief at the sight of their husband's corpse, 
pleading to be buried alive in the same coffin so they would not have 
to face the future without him, but as they grew reconciled to the 
reality of their new condition he had seen them rise up from the ashes 
with renewed vitality. They began by living like parasites of gloom in 
their big empty houses, they became the confidantes of their servants, 
lovers of their pillows, with nothing to do after so many years of sterile 
captivity. They wasted their overabundant hours doing what they had 
not had time for before, sewing the buttons on the dead man's clothes, 
ironing and reironing the shirts with stiff collar and cuffs so that they 
would always be in perfect condition. They continued to put his soap in 
the bathroom, his monogrammed pillowcase on the bed; his place was 
always set at the table, in case he returned from the dead without 
warning, as he tended to do in life. But in those solitary Masses they 
began to be aware that once again they were mistresses of their fate, 
after having renounced not only their family name but their own 
identity in exchange for a security that was no more than another of a 
bride's many illusions. They alone knew how tiresome was the man 
they loved to distraction, who perhaps loved them but whom they had 
to continue nurturing until his last breath as if he were a child, suckling 
him, changing his soiled diapers, distracting him with a mother's tricks 
to ease his terror at going out each morning to face reality. And 
nevertheless, when they watched him leave the house, this man they 



themselves had urged to conquer the world, then they were the ones 
left with the terror that he would never return. That was their life. 
Love, if it existed, was something separate: another life. 
I n the restorative idleness of solitude, on the other hand, the widows 
discovered that the honorable way to live was at the body's bidding, 
eating only when one was hungry, loving without lies, sleeping without 
having to feign sleep in order to escape the indecency of official love, 
possessed at last of the right to an entire bed to themselves, where no 
one fought them for half of the sheet, half of the air they breathed, 
half of their night, until their bodies were satisfied with dreaming their 
own dreams, and they woke alone. I n the dawns of his furtive hunting, 
Florentino Ariza would see them coming out of five o'clock Mass, 
shrouded in black and with the raven of destiny on their shoulder. As 
soon as they spotted him in the light of dawn, they would cross the 
street to walk on the other side with their small, hesitant steps, the 
steps of a little bird, for just walking near a man might stain their 
honor. And yet he was convinced that a disconsolate widow, more than 
any other woman, might carry within her the seed of happiness. 
So many widows in his life, since the Widow Nazaret, had made it 
possible for him to discern how happy they were after the death of 
their husbands. What had been only a dream until then was changed, 
thanks to them, into a possibility that he could seize with both hands. 
He saw no reason why Fermina Daza should not be a widow like them, 
prepared by life to accept him just as he was, without fantasies of guilt 
because of her dead husband, resolved to discover with him the other 
happiness of being happy twice, with one love for everyday use which 
would become, more and more, a miracle of being alive, and the other 
love that belonged to her alone, the love immunized by death against 



all contagion. 

Perhaps he would not have been as enthusiastic if he had even 
suspected how far Fermina Daza was from those illusory calculations, 
at a time when she was just beginning to perceive the horizon of a 
world in which everything was foreseen except adversity. In those 
days, being rich had many advantages, and many disadvantages as 
well, of course, but half the world longed for it as the most probable 
way to live forever. Fermina Daza had rejected Florentino Ariza in a 
lightning flash of maturity which she paid for immediately with a crisis 
of pity, but she never doubted that her decision had been correct. At 
the time she could not explain what hidden impulses of her reason had 
allowed her that clairvoyance, but many years later, on the eve of old 
age, she uncovered them suddenly and without knowing how during a 
casual conversation about Florentino Ariza. Everyone knew that he was 
heir apparent to the River Company of the Caribbean during its 
greatest period; they were all sure they had seen him many times, 
and had even had dealings with him, but no one could remember what 
he was like. It was then that Fermina Daza experienced the revelation 
of the unconscious motives that had kept her from loving him. She 
said: "It is as if he were not a person but only a shadow." That is what 
he was: the shadow of someone whom no one had ever known. But 
while she resisted the siege of Dr. J uvenal Urbino, who was just the 
opposite, she felt herself tormented by the phantom of guilt: the only 
emotion she could not bear. When she felt it coming on, a kind of 
panic overtook her which she could control only if she found someone 
to soothe her conscience. Ever since she was a little girl, when a plate 
broke in the kitchen, when someone fell, when she herself caught her 
finger in the door, she would turn in dismay to the nearest adult and 



make her accusation: "It was your fault." Although in reality she was 
not concerned with who was responsible or with convincing herself of 
her own innocence: she was satisfied at having established it. 
The specter was so notorious that Dr. Urbino realized how much it 
threatened the harmony of his home, and as soon as he detected it he 
hastened to tell his wife: "Don't worry, my love, it was my fault." For 
he feared nothing so much as his wife's sudden categorical decisions, 
and he was convinced that they always originated in a feeling of guilt. 
The confusion caused by her rejection of Florentino Ariza, however, 
had not been resolved with comforting words. For several months 
Fermina Daza continued to open up the balcony in the morning, and 
she always missed the solitary phantom watching her from the 
deserted little park; she saw the tree that had been his, the most 
obscure bench where he would sit to read as he thought about her, 
suffered for her, and she would have to close the window again, 
sighing: "Poor man." When it was already too late to make up for the 
past, she even suffered the disillusionment of knowing that he was not 
as tenacious as she had supposed, and from time to time she would 
still feel a belated longing for a letter that never arrived. But when she 
had to face the decision of marrying J uvenal Urbino, she succumbed, in 
a major crisis, when she realized that she had no valid reasons for 
preferring him after she had rejected Florentino Ariza without valid 
reasons. In fact, she loved him as little as she had loved the other 
one, but knew much less about him, and his letters did not have the 
fervor of the other one's, nor had he given her so many moving proofs 
of his determination. The truth is that Juvenal Urbino's suit had never 
been undertaken in the name of love, and it was curious, to say the 
least, that a militant Catholic like him would offer her only worldly 



goods: security, order, happiness, contiguous numbers that, once they 
were added together, might resemble love, almost be love. But they 
were not love, and these doubts increased her confusion, because she 
was also not convinced that love was really what she most needed to 
live. 

In any case, the principal factor operating against Dr. Juvenal Urbino 
was his more than suspect resemblance to the ideal man that Lorenzo 
Daza had so wanted for his daughter. It was impossible not to see him 
as the creature of a paternal plot, even if in reality he was not, but 
Fermina Daza became convinced that he was from the time she saw 
him come to her house for a second, unsolicited medical call. I n the 
end, her conversations with Cousin Hildebranda only confused her. 
Because of Cousin Hildebranda's own situation as a victim, she tended 
to identify with Florentino Ariza, forgetting that perhaps Lorenzo Daza 
had arranged her visit so that she could use her influence in favor of 
Dr. Urbino. God alone knows what it cost Fermina Daza not to 
accompany her cousin when she went to meet Florentino Ariza in the 
telegraph office. She would have liked to see him again to present him 
with her doubts, to speak with him alone, to learn to know him well so 
that she could be certain that her impulsive decision would not 
precipitate her into another, more serious one: capitulation in her 
personal war against her father. But that is what she did at a crucial 
moment in her life, giving no importance whatsoever to the 
handsomeness of her suitor, or his legendary wealth, or his youthful 
glory, or any of his numerous virtues; rather, she was stunned by the 
fear of an opportunity slipping away, and by the imminence of her 
twenty-first birthday, which was her private time limit for surrendering 
to fate. That one moment was enough for her to make the decision 



that was foreseen in the laws of God and man: until death do you part. 
Then all her doubts vanished, and she could accomplish without 
remorse what reason indicated as the most decent thing to do: with no 
tears, she wiped away the memory of Florentino Ariza, she erased him 
completely, and in the space that he had occupied in her memory she 
allowed a field of poppies to bloom. All that she permitted herself was 
one final sigh that was deeper than usual: "Poor man!" 
The most fearful doubts began, however, when she returned from her 
honeymoon. As soon as they opened the trunks, unpacked the 
furniture, and emptied the eleven chests she had brought in order to 
take possession as lady and mistress of the former palace of the 
Marquis de Casalduero, she realized with mortal vertigo that she was a 
prisoner in the wrong house and, even worse, with a man who was not. 
It took her six years to leave, the worst years of her life, when she 
was in despair because of the bitterness of Doha Blanca, her 
mother-in-law, and the mental lethargy of her sisters-in-law, who did 
not go to rot in a convent cell only because they already carried one 
inside themselves. 

Dr. Urbino, resigned to paying homage to his lineage, turned a deaf 
ear to her pleas, confident that the wisdom of God and his wife's 
infinite capacity to adapt would resolve the situation. He was pained by 
the deterioration of his mother, whose joy in living had, at one time, 
sparked the desire to live in even the most skeptical. It was true: that 
beautiful, intelligent woman, with a human sensibility not at all 
common in her milieu, had been the soul and body of her social 
paradise for almost forty years. Widowhood had so embittered her that 
she did not seem the same person; it had made her flabby and sour 
and the enemy of the world. The only possible explanation for her 



decline was the rancor she felt because her husband had knowingly 
sacrificed himself for a black rabble, as she used to say, when the only 
fitting sacrifice would have been to survive for her sake. In any case, 
Fermina Daza's happy marriage lasted as long as the honeymoon, and 
the only person who could help her to prevent its final wreckage was 
paralyzed by terror in the presence of his mother's power. It was he, 
and not her imbecilic sisters-in-law and her half-mad mother-in-law, 
whom Fermina Daza blamed for the death trap that held her. She 
suspected too late that behind his professional authority and worldly 
charm, the man she had married was a hopeless weakling: a poor 
devil made bold by the social weight of his family names. 
She took refuge in her newborn son. She had felt him leave her body 
with a sensation of relief at freeing herself from something that did not 
belong to her, and she had been horrified at herself when she 
confirmed that she did not feel the slightest affection for that calf from 
her womb the midwife showed her in the raw, smeared with grease 
and blood and with the umbilical cord rolled around his neck. But in 
her loneliness in the palace she learned to know him, they learned to 
know each other, and she discovered with great delight that one does 
not love one's children just because they are one's children but 
because of the friendship formed while raising them. She came to 
despise anything and anyone who was not him in the house of her 
misfortune. She was depressed by the solitude, the cemetery garden, 
the squandering of time in the enormous, windowless rooms. During 
the endless nights she felt herself losing her mind, as the madwomen 
screamed in the asylum next door. She was ashamed of their custom 
of setting the banquet table every day with embroidered tablecloths, 
silver service, and funereal candelabra so that five phantoms could 



dine on cafe con leche and crullers. She detested the rosary at dusk, 
the affected table etiquette, the constant criticism of the way she held 
her silverware, the way she walked in mystical strides like a woman of 
the streets, the way she dressed as if she were in the circus, and even 
the rustic way she treated her husband and nursed her child without 
covering her breast with her mantilla. When she issued her first 
invitations to five o'clock tea, with little imperial cakes and candied 
flowers, in accordance with recent English fashion, Doha Blanca 
objected to serving remedies for sweating out a fever in her house 
instead of chocolate with aged cheese and rounded loaves of cassava 
bread. Not even dreams escaped her notice. One morning when 
Fermina Daza said she had dreamed about a naked stranger who 
walked through the salons of the palace scattering fistfuls of ashes, 
Doha Blanca cut her off: 

"A decent woman cannot have that kind of dream." 
Along with the feeling of always being in someone else's house came 
two even greater misfortunes. One was the almost daily diet of 
eggplant in all its forms, which Doha Blanca refused to vary out of 
respect for her dead husband, and which Fermina Daza refused to eat. 
She had despised eggplants ever since she was a little girl, even 
before she had tasted them, because it always seemed to her that they 
were the color of poison. Only now she had to admit that in this case 
something had changed for the better in her life, because at the age of 
five she had said the same thing at the table, and her father had 
forced her to eat the entire casserole intended for six people. She 
thought she was going to die, first because she vomited pulverized 
eggplant and then because of the cupful of castor oil she had to take 
as a cure for the punishment. Both things were confused in her 



memory as a single purgative, as much for the taste as for her terror 
of the poison, and at the abominable lunches in the palace of the 
Marquis de Casalduero she had to look away so as not to repay their 
kindness with the icy nausea of castor oil. 

The other misfortune was the harp. One day, very conscious of what 
she meant, Doha Blanca had said: "I do not believe in decent women 
who do not know how to play the piano." It was an order that even her 
son tried to dispute, for the best years of his childhood had been spent 
in the galley slavery of piano lessons, although as an adult he would 
be grateful for them. He could not imagine his wife, with her character, 
subjected to the same punishment at the age of twenty-five. But the 
only concession he could wring from his mother, with the puerile 
argument that it was the instrument of the angels, was to substitute 
the harp for the piano. And so it was that they brought a magnificent 
harp from Vienna that seemed to be gold and sounded as if it were, 
and that was one of the most valued heirlooms in the Museum of the 
City until it and all it contained were consumed in flames. Fermina 
Daza submitted to this deluxe prison sentence in an attempt to avoid 
catastrophe with one final sacrifice. She began to study with a teacher 
of teachers, whom they brought for that purpose from the city of 
Mompox, and who died unexpectedly two weeks later, and she 
continued for several years with the best musician at the seminary, 
whose gravedigger's breath distorted her arpeggios. 
She herself was surprised at her obedience. For although she did not 
admit it in her innermost thoughts, or in the silent arguments she had 
with her husband during the hours they had once devoted to love, she 
had been caught up more quickly than she had believed in the tangle 
of conventions and prejudices of her new world. At first she had a 



ritual phrase that affirmed her freedom of thought: "To hell with a fan 
when the wind is blowing." But later, jealous of her carefully won 
privileges, fearful of embarrassment and scorn, she demonstrated her 
willingness to endure even humiliation in the hope that God would at 
last take pity on Doha Blanca, who never tired of begging Him in her 
prayers to send her death. 

Dr. Urbino justified his own weakness with grave arguments, not even 
asking himself if they were in conflict with the Church. He would not 
admit that the difficulties with his wife had their origin in the rarefied 
air of the house, but blamed them on the very nature of matrimony: 
an absurd invention that could exist only by the infinite grace of God. 
It was against all scientific reason for two people who hardly knew 
each other, with no ties at all between them, with different characters, 
different upbringings, and even different genders, to suddenly find 
themselves committed to living together, to sleeping in the same bed, 
to sharing two destinies that perhaps were fated to go in opposite 
directions. He would say: "The problem with marriage is that it ends 
every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning 
before breakfast." And worst of all was theirs, arising out of two 
opposing classes, in a city that still dreamed of the return of the 
Viceroys. The only possible bond was something as improbable and 
fickle as love, if there was any, and in their case there was none when 
they married, and when they were on the verge of inventing it, fate 
had done nothing more than confront them with reality. 
That was the condition of their lives during the period of the harp. 
They had left behind the delicious coincidences of her coming in while 
he was taking a bath, when, despite the arguments and the poisonous 
eggplant, and despite his demented sisters and the mother who bore 



them, he still had enough love to ask her to soap him. She began to 
do it with the crumbs of love that still remained from Europe, and both 
allowed themselves to be betrayed by memories, softening without 
wanting to, desiring each other without saying so, and at last they 
would die of love on the floor, spattered with fragrant suds, as they 
heard the maids talking about them in the laundry room: "If they don't 
have more children it's because they don't fuck." From time to time, 
when they came home from a wild fiesta, the nostalgia crouching 
behind the door would knock them down with one blow of its paw, and 
then there would be a marvelous explosion in which everything was 
the way it used to be and for five minutes they were once again the 
uninhibited lovers of their honeymoon. 

But except for those rare occasions, one of them was always more 
tired than the other when it was time to go to bed. She would dawdle 
in the bathroom, rolling her cigarettes in perfumed paper, smoking 
alone, relapsing into her consolatory love as she did when she was 
young and free in her own house, mistress of her own body. She 
always had a headache, or it was too hot, always, or she pretended to 
be asleep, or she had her period again, her period, always her period. 
So much so that Dr. Urbino had dared to say in class, only for the 
relief of unburdening himself without confession, that after ten years of 
marriage women had their periods as often as three times a week. 
Misfortune piled on misfortune, and in the worst of those years 
Fermina Daza had to face what was bound to come sooner or later: the 
truth of her father's fabulous and always mysterious dealings. The 
Governor of the Province made an appointment with J uvenal Urbino in 
his office to bring him up to date on the excesses of his father-in-law, 
which he summed up in a single sentence: "There is no law, human or 



divine, that this man has not ignored." Some of his most serious 
schemes had been carried out in the shadow of his son-in-law's 
prestige, and it would have been difficult to believe that he and his 
wife knew nothing about them. Realizing that the only reputation to 
protect was his own, because it was the only one still standing, Dr. 
Juvenal Urbino intervened with all the weight of his prestige, and he 
succeeded in covering up the scandal with his word of honor. So that 
Lorenzo Daza left the country on the first boat, never to return. He 
went back to his native country as if it were one of those little trips 
one takes from time to time to ward off nostalgia, and at the bottom 
of that appearance there was some truth: for a long time he had 
boarded ships from his country just to drink a glass of water from the 
cisterns filled with the rains of the village where he was born. He left 
without having his arm twisted, protesting his innocence, and still 
trying to convince his son-in-law that he had been the victim of a 
political conspiracy. He left crying for his girl, as he had called Fermina 
Daza since her marriage, crying for his grandson, for the land in which 
he had become rich and free and where, on the basis of his shady 
dealings, he had won the power to turn his daughter into an exquisite 
lady. He left old and sick, but still he lived much longer than any of his 
victims might have desired. Fermina Daza could not repress a sigh of 
relief when she received the news of his death, and in order to avoid 
questions she did not wear mourning, but for several months she wept 
with mute fury without knowing why when she locked herself in the 
bathroom to smoke, and it was because she was crying for him. 
The most absurd element in their situation was that they never 
seemed so happy in public as during those years of misery. For this 
was the time of their greatest victories over the subterranean hostility 



of a milieu that resisted accepting them as they were: different and 
modern, and for that reason transgressors against the traditional 
order. That, however, had been the easy part for Fermina Daza. Life in 
the world, which had caused her so much uncertainty before she was 
familiar with it, was nothing more than a system of atavistic contracts, 
banal ceremonies, preordained words, with which people entertained 
each other in society in order not to commit murder. The dominant 
sign in that paradise of provincial frivolity was fear of the unknown. 
She had defined it in a simpler way: "The problem in public life is 
learning to overcome terror; the problem in married life is learning to 
overcome boredom." She had made this sudden discovery with the 
clarity of a revelation when, trailing her endless bridal train behind 
her, she had entered the vast salon of the Social Club, where the air 
was thin with the mingled scent of so many flowers, the brilliance of 
the waltzes, the tumult of perspiring men and tremulous women who 
looked at her not knowing how they were going to exorcise the 
dazzling menace that had come to them from the outside world. She 
had just turned twenty-one and had done little more than leave her 
house to go to school, but with one look around her she understood 
that her adversaries were not convulsed with hatred but paralyzed by 
fear. Instead of frightening them even more, as she was already 
doing, she had the compassion to help them learn to know her. They 
were no different from what she wanted them to be, just as in the case 
of cities, which did not seem better or worse to her, but only as she 
made them in her heart. Despite the perpetual rain, the sordid 
merchants, and the Homeric vulgarity of its carriage drivers, she would 
always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not 
because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked 



to the memory of her happiest years. Dr. Urbino, for his part, 
commanded respect with the same weapons that were used against 
him, except that his were wielded with more intelligence and with 
calculated solemnity. Nothing happened without them: civic 
exhibitions, the Poetic Festival, artistic events, charity raffles, patriotic 
ceremonies, the first journey in a balloon. They were there for 
everything, and almost always from its inception and at the forefront. 
During those unfortunate years no one could have imagined anyone 
happier than they or a marriage more harmonious than theirs. 
The house left by her father gave Fermina Daza a refuge from the 
asphyxiation of the family palace. As soon as she could escape from 
public view, she would go in secret to the Park of the Evangels, and 
there she would visit with new friends and some old ones from school 
or the painting classes: an innocent substitute for infidelity. She spent 
tranquil hours as a single mother, surrounded by what remained of her 
girlhood memories. She replaced the perfumed crows, found cats on 
the street and placed them in the care of Gala Placidia, who by this 
time was old and somewhat slowed by rheumatism but still willing to 
bring the house back to life. She opened the sewing room where 
Florentino Ariza saw her for the first time, where Dr. J uvenal Urbino 
had her stick out her tongue so that he could try to read her heart, and 
she turned it into a sanctuary of the past. One winter afternoon she 
went to close the balcony because a heavy storm was threatening, and 
she saw Florentino Ariza on his bench under the almond trees in the 
little park, with his father's suit altered to fit him and his book open on 
his lap, but this time she did not see him as she had seen him by 
accident on various occasions, but at the age at which he remained in 
her memory. She was afraid that the vision was an omen of death, 



and she was grief-stricken. She dared to tell herself that perhaps she 
would have been happier with him, alone with him in that house she 
had restored for him with as much love as he had felt when he 
restored his house for her, and that simple hypothesis dismayed her 
because it permitted her to realize the extreme of unhappiness she 
had reached. Then she summoned her last strength and obliged her 
husband to talk to her without evasion, to confront her, to argue with 
her, to cry with her in rage at the loss of paradise, until they heard the 
last rooster crow, and the light filtered in through the lace curtains of 
the palace, and the sun rose, and her husband, puffy with so much 
talk, exhausted with lack of sleep, his heart fortified with so much 
weeping, laced his shoes, tightened his belt, fastened everything that 
remained to him of his manhood, and told her yes, my love, they were 
going to look for the love they had lost in Europe: starting tomorrow 
and forever after. It was such a firm decision that he arranged with the 
Treasury Bank, his general administrator, for the immediate 
liquidation of the vast family fortune, which was dispersed, and had 
been from the very beginning, in all kinds of businesses, investments, 
and long-term, sacred bonds, and which only he knew was not as 
excessive as legend would have it: just large enough so one did not 
need to think about it. What there was of it was converted into 
stamped gold, to be invested little by little in his foreign bank accounts 
until he and his wife would own nothing in this harsh country, not even 
a plot of ground to die on. 

And yet Florentino Ariza actually existed, contrary to what she had 
decided to believe. He was on the pier where the French ocean liner 
was docked when she arrived with her husband and child in the landau 
drawn by the golden horses, and he saw them emerge as he had so 



often seen them at public ceremonies: perfect. They were leaving with 
their son, raised in such a way that one could already see what he 
would be like as an adult: and so he was. Juvenal Urbino greeted 
Florentino Ariza with a joyous wave of his hat: "We're off to conquer 
Flanders." Fermina Daza nodded, and Florentino Ariza took off his hat 
and made a slight bow, and she looked at him without the slightest 
compassion for the premature ravages of baldness. There he was, just 
as she saw him: the shadow of someone she had never met. 
These were not the best times for Florentino Ariza either. I n addition to 
his work, which grew more and more intense, and the tedium of his 
furtive hunting, and the dead calm of the years, there was also the 
final crisis of Transito Ariza, whose mind had been left almost without 
memories, almost a blank, to the point where she would turn to him at 
times, see him reading in the armchair he always sat in, and ask him 
in surprise: "And whose son are you?" He would always reply with the 
truth, but she would interrupt him again without delay: 
"And tell me something, my boy," she would ask. "Who am I?" 
She had grown so fat that she could not move, and she spent the day 
in the notions shop, where there was no longer anything to sell, 
primping and dressing in finery from the time she awoke with the first 
roosters until the following dawn, for she slept very little. She would 
put garlands of flowers on her head, paint her lips, powder her face 
and arms, and at last she would ask whoever was with her, "Who am I 
now?" The neighbors knew that she always expected the same reply: 
"You are Little Roachie Martinez." This identity, stolen from a character 
in a children's story, was the only one that satisfied her. She continued 
to rock and to fan herself with long pink feathers, until she began all 
over again: the crown of paper flowers, violet on her eyelids, red on 



her lips, dead white on her face. And again the question to whoever 
was nearby: "Who am I now?" When she became the laughingstock of 
the neighborhood, Florentino Ariza had the counter and the storage 
drawers of the old notions shop dismantled in one night, and the street 
door sealed, and the space arranged just as he had heard her describe 
Roachie Martinez's bedroom, and she never asked again who she was. 
At the suggestion of Uncle Leo XII, he found an older woman to take 
care of her, but the poor thing was always more asleep than awake, 
and at times she gave the impression that she, too, forgot who she 
was. So that Florentino Ariza would stay home from the time he left 
the office until he managed to put his mother to sleep. He no longer 
played dominoes at the Commercial Club, and for a long time he did 
not visit the few women friends he had continued to see, for something 
very profound had changed in his heart after his dreadful meeting with 
Olimpia Zuleta. 

It was as if he had been struck by lightning. Florentino Ariza had just 
taken Uncle Leo XI I home during one of those October storms that 
would leave us reeling, when he saw from his carriage a slight, very 
agile girl in a dress covered with organza ruffles that looked like a 
bridal gown. He saw her running in alarm from one side of the street 
to the other, because the wind had snatched away her parasol and was 
blowing it out to sea. He rescued her in his carriage and went out of 
his way to take her to her house, an old converted hermitage that 
faced the open sea and whose patio, visible from the street, was full of 
pigeon coops. On the way, she told him that she had been married less 
than a year to a man who sold trinkets in the market, whom Florentino 
Ariza had often seen on his company's boats unloading cartons of all 
kinds of salable merchandise and with a multitude of pigeons in a 



wicker cage of the sort mothers used on riverboats for carrying infants. 
Olimpia Zuleta seemed to belong to the wasp family, not only because 
of her high buttocks and meager bosom, but because of everything 
about her: her hair like copper wire, her freckles, her round, animated 
eyes that were farther apart than normal, and her melodious voice 
that she used only for saying intelligent and amusing things. Florentino 
Ariza thought she was more witty than attractive, and he forgot her as 
soon as he left her at her house, where she lived with her husband, his 
father, and other members of his family. 

A few days later he saw her husband at the port, loading merchandise 
instead of unloading it, and when the ship weighed anchor Florentino 
heard, with great clarity, the voice of the devil in his ear. That 
afternoon, after taking Uncle Leo XII home, he passed by Olimpia 
Zuleta's house as if by accident, and he saw her over the fence, 
feeding the noisy pigeons. He called to her from his carriage: "How 
much for a pigeon?" She recognized him and answered in a merry 
voice: "They are not for sale." He asked: "Then what must I do to get 
one?" Still feeding the pigeons, she replied: "You drive her back to the 
coop when you find her lost in a storm." So that Florentino Ariza 
arrived home that night with a thank-you gift from Olimpia Zuleta: a 
carrier pigeon with a metal ring around its leg. 
The next afternoon, just at dinnertime, the beautiful pigeon fancier 
saw the gift carrier pigeon in the dovecote and thought it had escaped. 
But when she picked it up to examine it, she realized that there was a 
slip of paper inside the ring: a declaration of love. It was the first time 
that Florentino Ariza had left a written trace, and it would not be the 
last, although on this occasion he had been prudent enough not to sign 
his name. He was going into his house the following afternoon, a 



Wednesday, when a street boy handed him the same pigeon in a cage, 
with a memorized message that the pigeon lady hereby sends you this, 
and says to tell you to please keep the cage locked because if not it 
will fly away again and this is the last time she will send it back. He 
had no idea how to interpret this: either the pigeon had lost the note 
en route, or the pigeonkeeper had decided to play innocent, or she had 
returned the pigeon so that he could send it back to her again. If that 
was true, however, the natural thing would have been for her to return 
the pigeon with a reply. 

On Saturday morning, after much thought, Florentino Ariza sent back 
the pigeon with another unsigned letter. This time he did not have to 
wait until the next day. In the afternoon the same boy brought it back 
in another cage, with a message that said she hereby sends back the 
pigeon that flew away again, and that the day before yesterday she 
returned it out of courtesy and this time she returns it out of pity, but 
that now it is really true that she will not return it again if it flies away 
another time. Transito Ariza played with the pigeon until very late, she 
took it out of the cage, she rocked it in her arms, she tried to lull it to 
sleep with children's songs, and then suddenly Florentino Ariza realized 
that in the ring around its leg was a little piece of paper with one line 
written on it: I do not accept anonymous letters. Florentino Ariza read 
it, his heart wild with joy as if this were the culmination of his first 
adventure, and he did not sleep a wink that night as he tossed and 
turned with impatience. Very early the next day, before he left for the 
office, he once again set the pigeon free, carrying a love note that 
bore his clear signature, and he also put in the ring the freshest, 
reddest, and most fragrant rose from his garden. 
It was not that easy. After three months of pursuit, the beautiful 



pigeon fancier was still sending the same answer: I am not one of 
those women. But she never refused to accept his messages or broke 
any of the dates that Florentino Ariza arranged so that they would 
seem to be casual encounters. He was a different person: the lover 
who never showed his face, the man most avid for love as well as 
most niggardly with it, the man who gave nothing and wanted 
everything, the man who did not allow anyone to leave a trace of her 
passing in his heart, the hunter lying in ambush--this man went out on 
the street in the midst of ecstatic signed letters, gallant gifts, 
imprudent vigils at the pigeonkeeper's house, even on two occasions 
when her husband was not on a trip or at the market. It was the only 
time, since his youngest days, when he felt himself run through by the 
lance of love. 

Six months after their first meeting, they found themselves at last in a 
cabin on a riverboat that was being painted at the docks. It was a 
marvelous afternoon. Olimpia Zuleta had the joyous love of a startled 
pigeon fancier, and she preferred to remain naked for several hours in 
a slow-moving repose that was, for her, as loving as love itself. The 
cabin was dismantled, half painted, and they would take the odor of 
turpentine away with them in the memory of a happy afternoon. In a 
sudden inspiration, Florentino Ariza opened a can of red paint that was 
within reach of the bunk, wet his index finger, and painted the pubis of 
the beautiful pigeon fancier with an arrow of blood pointing south, and 
on her belly the words: This pussy is mine. That same night, Olimpia 
Zuleta undressed in front of her husband, having forgotten what was 
scrawled there, and he did not say a word, his breathing did not even 
change, nothing, but he went to the bathroom for his razor while she 
was putting on her nightgown, and in a single slash he cut her throat. 



Florentine) did not find out until many days later, when the fugitive 
husband was captured and told the newspapers the reasons for the 
crime and how he had committed it. For many years he thought with 
terror about the signed letters, he kept track of the prison term of the 
murderer, who knew him because of his dealings with the boat 
company, but it was not so much fear of a knife at his throat or a 
public scandal as the misfortune of Fermina Daza's learning about his 
infidelity. One day during his years of waiting, the woman who took 
care of Transito Ariza had to stay at the market longer than expected 
because of an unseasonable downpour, and when she returned to the 
house she found her sitting in the rocking chair, painted and bedecked 
as always, and with eyes so animated and a smile so mischievous that 
her caretaker did not realize she was dead until two hours later. 
Shortly before her death she had distributed to the neighborhood 
children the fortune in gold and jewels hidden in the jars buried under 
her bed, saying they could eat them like candy, and some of the most 
valuable were impossible to recover. Florentino Ariza buried her in the 
former Hand of God ranch, which was still known as the Cholera 
Cemetery, and he planted a rosebush on her grave. 
After his first few visits to the cemetery, Florentino Ariza discovered 
that Olimpia Zuleta was buried very close by, without a tombstone but 
with her name and the date scrawled in the fresh cement of the crypt, 
and he thought in horror that this was one of her husband's sanguinary 
jokes. When the roses bloomed he would place a flower on her grave if 
there was no one in sight, and later he planted a cutting taken from his 
mother's rosebush. Both bloomed in such profusion that Florentino 
Ariza had to bring shears and other garden tools to keep them under 
control. But the task was beyond him: after a few years the two 



rosebushes had spread like weeds among the graves, and from then 
on, the unadorned cemetery of the plague was called the Cemetery of 
Roses, until some mayor who was less realistic than popular wisdom 
cleared out the roses one night and hung a republican sign from the 
arch of the entrance gate: Universal Cemetery. 

The death of his mother left Florentino Ariza condemned once again to 
his maniacal pursuits: the office, his meetings in strict rotation with his 
regular mistresses, the domino games at the Commercial Club, the 
same books of love, the Sunday visits to the cemetery. It was the rust 
of routine, which he had despised and feared so much, but which had 
protected him from an awareness of his age. However, one Sunday in 
December, when the rosebushes on the tombs had already defeated 
the garden shears, he saw the swallows on the recently installed 
electric wires and he suddenly realized how much time had gone by 
since the death of his mother, and how much since the murder of 
Olimpia Zuleta, and how very much since that other distant December 
afternoon when Fermina Daza sent him a letter saying yes, she would 
love him always. Until then he had behaved as if time would not pass 
for him but only for others. Just the week before, he happened to meet 
on the street one of the many couples who had married because of the 
letters he had written, and he did not recognize their oldest child, who 
was his godson. He smoothed over his embarrassment with the 
conventional exclamation: "I'll be damned, he's a man already!" And 
he continued in the same way even after his body began sending him 
the first warning signals, because he had always had the iron 
constitution of the sickly. Transito Ariza used to say: "The only disease 
my son ever had was cholera." She had confused cholera with love, of 
course, long before her memory failed. But in any event she was 



mistaken, because her son had suffered from six blennorrhagias, 
although the doctor had said they were not six but the same one that 
reappeared after each lost battle. He had also had a swollen lymph 
gland, four warts, and six cases of impetigo in the groin, but it would 
not have occurred to him or any man to think of these as diseases; 
they were only the spoils of war. 

When he had just turned forty, he had gone to the doctor because of 
vague pains in various parts of his body. After many tests, the doctor 
had said: "It's age." He had returned home without even wondering if 
any of that had anything to do with him. For his only point of reference 
in his own past was the ephemeral love affair with Fermina Daza, and 
only what concerned her had anything to do with reckoning his life. So 
that on the afternoon when he saw the swallows on the electric wires, 
he reviewed the past from his earliest memory, he reviewed his 
chance loves, the countless pitfalls he had been obliged to avoid in 
order to reach a position of authority, the events without number that 
had given rise to his bitter determination that Fermina Daza would be 
his and he would be hers despite everything, in the face of everything, 
and only then did he realize that his life was passing. He was shaken 
by a visceral shudder that left his mind blank, and he had to drop the 
garden tools and lean against the cemetery wall so that the first blow 
of old age would not knock him down. 

"Damn it," he said, appalled, "that all happened thirty years ago!" 
And it had. Thirty years that had also gone by for Fermina Daza, of 
course, but had 

been for her the most pleasant and exhilarating years of her life. The 
days of horror in the Palace of Casalduero were relegated to the trash 
heap of memory. She was living in her new house in La Manga, 



absolute mistress of her own destiny, with a husband she would have 
preferred to all the men in the world if she had to choose again, a son 
who was continuing the family tradition in the Medical School, and a 
daughter so much like her when she was her age that at times she was 
disturbed by the impression of feeling herself duplicated. She had 
returned to Europe three times after the unfortunate trip from which 
she had intended never to return so that she would not have to live in 
perpetual turmoil. 

God must have finally listened to someone's prayers: after two years 
in Paris, when Fermina Daza and J uvenal Urbino were just beginning to 
find what remained of their love in the ruins, a midnight telegram 
awoke them with the news that Doha Blanca de Urbino was gravely ill, 
and almost on its heels came another with the news of her death. They 
returned without delay. Fermina Daza walked off the ship wearing a 
black tunic whose fullness could not hide her condition. I n fact she was 
pregnant again, and this news gave rise to a popular song, more 
mischievous than malicious, whose chorus was heard for the rest of the 
year: What d'you think she does over there, this beauty from our 
earth? Whenever she comes back from Paris, she's ready to give birth. 
Despite the vulgarity of the words, for many years afterward Dr. 
J uvenal Urbino would request it at Social Club dances to prove he was 
a good sport. 

The noble palace of the Marquis de Casalduero, whose existence and 
coat of arms had never been documented, was sold to the municipal 
treasury for a decent price, and then resold for a fortune to the central 
government when a Dutch researcher began excavations to prove that 
the real grave of Christopher Columbus was located there: the fifth one 
so far. The sisters of Dr. Urbino, without taking vows, went to live in 



seclusion in the Convent of the Salesians, and Fermina Daza stayed in 
her father's old house until the villa in La Manga was completed. She 
walked in with a firm step, she walked in prepared to command, with 
the English furniture brought back on their honeymoon and the 
complementary furnishings they sent for after their reconciliation trip, 
and from the first day she began to fill it with exotic animals that she 
herself went to buy on the schooners from the Antilles. She walked in 
with the husband she had won back, the son she had raised with 
propriety, the daughter who was born four months after their return 
and whom they baptized Ofelia. Dr. Urbino, for his part, understood 
that it was impossible to possess his wife as completely as he had on 
their honeymoon, because the part of love he wanted was what she 
had given, along with her best hours, to her children, but he learned to 
live and be happy with what was left over. The harmony they had 
longed for reached its culmination when they least expected it, at a 
gala dinner at which a delicious food was served that Fermina Daza 
could not identify. She began with a good portion, but she liked it so 
much that she took another of the same size, and she was lamenting 
the fact that urbane etiquette did not permit her to help herself to a 
third, when she learned that she had just eaten, with unsuspected 
pleasure, two heaping plates of pureed eggplant. She accepted defeat 
with good grace, and from that time on, eggplant in all its forms was 
served at the villa in La Manga with almost as much frequency as at 
the Palace of Casalduero, and it was enjoyed so much by everyone 
that Dr. Juvenal Urbino would lighten the idle hours of his old age by 
insisting that he wanted to have another daughter so that he could give 
her the best-loved word in the house as a name: Eggplant Urbino. 
Fermina Daza knew then that private life, unlike public life, was fickle 



and unpredictable. It was not easy for her to establish real differences 
between children and adults, but in the last analysis she preferred 
children, because their judgment was more reliable. She had barely 
turned the corner into maturity, free at last of illusions, when she 
began to detect the disillusionment of never having been what she had 
dreamed of being when she was young, in the Park of the Evangels. 
Instead, she was something she never dared admit even to herself: a 
deluxe servant. In society she came to be the woman most loved, 
most catered to, and by the same token most feared, but in nothing 
was she more demanding or less forgiving than in the management of 
her house. She always felt as if her life had been lent to her by her 
husband: she was absolute monarch of a vast empire of happiness, 
which had been built by him and for him alone. She knew that he 
loved her above all else, more than anyone else in the world, but only 
for his own sake: she was in his holy service. 

If anything vexed her, it was the perpetual chain of daily meals. For 
they not only had to be served on time: they had to be perfect, and 
they had to be just what he wanted to eat, without his having to be 
asked. If she ever did ask, in one of the innumerable useless 
ceremonies of their domestic ritual, he would not even look up from 
the newspaper and would reply: "Anything." In his amiable way he was 
telling the truth, because one could not imagine a less despotic 
husband. But when it was time to eat, it could not be anything, but just 
what he wanted, and with no defects: the meat should not taste of 
meat, and the fish should not taste of fish, and the pork should not 
taste of mange, and the chicken should not taste of feathers. Even 
when it was not the season for asparagus, it had to be found 
regardless of cost, so that he could take pleasure in the vapors of his 



own fragrant urine. She did not blame him: she blamed life. But he 
was an implacable protagonist in that life. At the mere hint of a doubt, 
he would push aside his plate and say: "This meal has been prepared 
without love." I n that sphere he would achieve moments of fantastic 
inspiration. Once he tasted some chamomile tea and sent it back, 
saying only: "This stuff tastes of window." Both she and the servants 
were surprised because they had never heard of anyone who had 
drunk boiled window, but when they tried the tea in an effort to 
understand, they understood: it did taste of window. 
He was a perfect husband: he never picked up anything from the floor, 
or turned out a light, or closed a door. I n the morning darkness, when 
he found a button missing from his clothes, she would hear him say: "A 
man should have two wives: one to love and one to sew on his 
buttons." Every day, at his first swallow of coffee and at his first 
spoonful of soup, he would break into a heartrending howl that no 
longer frightened anyone, and then unburden himself: "The day I 
leave this house, you will know it is because I grew tired of always 
having a burned mouth." He would say that they never prepared 
lunches as appetizing and unusual as on the days when he could not 
eat because he had taken a laxative, and he was so convinced that this 
was treachery on the part of his wife that in the end he refused to take 
a purgative unless she took one with him. 

Tired of his lack of understanding, she asked him for an unusual 
birthday gift: that for one day he would take care of the domestic 
chores. He accepted in amusement, and indeed took charge of the 
house at dawn. He served a splendid breakfast, but he forgot that fried 
eggs did not agree with her and that she did not drink cafe con leche. 
Then he ordered a birthday luncheon for eight guests and gave 



instructions for tidying the house, and he tried so hard to manage 
better than she did that before noon he had to capitulate without a 
trace of embarrassment. From the first moment he realized he did not 
have the slightest idea where anything was, above all in the kitchen, 
and the servants let him upset everything to find each item, for they 
were playing the game too. At ten o'clock no decisions had been made 
regarding lunch because the housecleaning was not finished yet, the 
bedroom was not straightened, the bathroom was not scrubbed; he 
forgot to replace the toilet paper, change the sheets, and send the 
coachmen for the children, and he confused the servants' duties: he 
told the cook to make the beds and set the chambermaids to cooking. 
At eleven o'clock, when the guests were about to arrive, the chaos in 
the house was such that Fermina Daza resumed command, laughing 
out loud, not with the triumphant attitude she would have liked but 
shaken instead with compassion for the domestic helplessness of her 
husband. He was bitter as he offered the argument he always used: 
"Things did not go as badly for me as they would for you if you tried to 
cure the sick." But it was a useful lesson, and not for him alone. Over 
the years they both reached the same wise conclusion by different 
paths: it was not possible to live together in any other way, or love in 
any other way, and nothing in this world was more difficult than love. 
In the fullness of her new life, Fermina Daza would see Florentino 
Ariza on various public occasions, with more frequency as he improved 
his position, but she learned to see him with so much naturalness that 
more than once, in sheer distraction, she forgot to greet him. She 
heard about him often, because in the world of business his cautious 
but inexorable advance in the R.C.C. was a constant topic of 
conversation. She saw him improve his manners, his timidity was 



passed off as a certain enigmatic distance, a slight increase in weight 
suited him, as did the slowness of age, and he had known how to 
handle his absolute baldness with dignity. The only area in which he 
persisted in defying time and fashion was in his somber attire, his 
anachronistic frock coats, his unique hat, the poet's string ties from his 
mother's notions shop, his sinister umbrella. Fermina Daza grew 
accustomed to seeing him with other eyes, and in the end she did not 
connect him to the languid adolescent who would sit and sigh for her 
under the gusts of yellow leaves in the Park of the Evangels. I n any 
case, she never saw him with indifference, and she was always pleased 
by the good news she heard about him, because that helped to 
alleviate her guilt. 

However, when she thought he was completely erased from her 
memory, he reappeared where she least expected him, a phantom of 
her nostalgia. It was during the first glimmering of old age, when she 
began to feel that something irreparable had occurred in her life 
whenever she heard thunder before the rain. It was the incurable 
wound of solitary, stony, punctual thunder that would sound every 
afternoon in October at three o'clock in the Sierra Villanueva, a 
memory that was becoming more vivid as the years went by. While 
more recent events blurred in just a few days, the memories of her 
legendary journey through Cousin Hildebranda's province were as 
sharp as if they had happened yesterday, and they had the perverse 
clarity of nostalgia. She remembered Manaure, in the mountains, its 
one straight, green street, its birds of good omen, the haunted house 
where she would wake to find her nightgown soaked by the endless 
tears of Petra Morales, who had died of love many years before in the 
same bed where she lay sleeping. She remembered the taste of the 



guavas, which had never been the same again, the warning thunder, 
which had been so intense that its sound was confused with the sound 
of rain, the topaz afternoons in San J uan del Cesar when she would go 
walking with her court of excited cousins and clench her teeth so that 
her heart would not leap out of her mouth as they approached the 
telegraph office. She had to sell her father's house because she could 
not bear the pain of her adolescence, the view of the desolate little 
park from the balcony, the sibylline fragrance of gardenias on hot 
nights, the frightening face of an old lady on the February afternoon 
when her fate was decided, and regardless of where she turned her 
memory of those times, she would find herself face to face with 
Florentino Ariza. But she always had enough serenity to know that they 
were not memories of love or repentance, but the image of a sorrow 
that left a trail of tears on her cheeks. Without realizing it, she was 
menaced by the same trap of pity that had been the downfall of so 
many of Florentino Ariza's defenseless victims. 

She clung to her husband. And it was just at the time when he needed 
her most, because he suffered the disadvantage of being ten years 
ahead of her as he stumbled alone through the mists of old age, with 
the even greater disadvantage of being a man and weaker than she 
was. I n the end they knew each other so well that by the time they 
had been married for thirty years they were like a single divided 
being, and they felt uncomfortable at the frequency with which they 
guessed each other's thoughts without intending to, or the ridiculous 
accident of one of them anticipating in public what the other was going 
to say. Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the 
instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness and fabulous flashes of 
glory in the conjugal conspiracy. It was the time when they loved each 



other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of 
and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still 
present them with other mortal trials, of course, but that no longer 
mattered: they were on the other shore. 



CHAPTER FIVE 

ON THE OCCASION of the celebration of the new century, there was an 
innovative program of public ceremonies, the most memorable of 
which was the first journey in a balloon, the fruit of the boundless 
initiative of Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Half the city gathered on the Arsenal 
Beach to express their wonderment at the ascent of the enormous 
balloon made of taffeta in the colors of the flag, which carried the first 
airmail to San Juan de la Cienaga, some thirty leagues to the 
northeast as the crow flies. Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his wife, who had 
experienced the excitement of flight at the World's Fair in Paris, were 
the first to climb into the wicker basket, followed by the pilot and six 
distinguished guests. They were carrying a letter from the Governor of 
the Province to the municipal officials of San J uan de la Cienaga, in 
which it was documented for all time that this was the first mail 
transported through the air. A journalist from the Commercial Daily 
asked Dr. J uvenal Urbino for his final words in the event he perished 
during the adventure, and he did not even take the time to think about 
the answer that would earn him so much abuse. 
"In my opinion," he said, "the nineteenth century is passing for 
everyone except us." Lost in the guileless crowd that sang the national 
anthem as the balloon gained altitude, Florentino Ariza felt himself in 
agreement with the person whose comments he heard over the din, to 
the effect that this was not a suitable exploit for a woman, least of all 
one as old as Fermina Daza. But it was not so dangerous after all. Or 
at least not so much dangerous as depressing. The balloon reached its 
destination without incident after a peaceful trip through an incredible 
blue sky. They flew well and very low, with a calm, favorable wind, 



first along the spurs of the snow-covered mountains and then over the 
vastness of the Great Swamp. 

From the sky they could see, just as God saw them, the ruins of the 
very old and heroic city of Cartagena de Indias, the most beautiful in 
the world, abandoned by its inhabitants because of the cholera panic 
after three centuries of resistance to the sieges of the English and the 
atrocities of the buccaneers. They saw the walls still intact, the 
brambles in the streets, the fortifications devoured by heartsease, the 
marble palaces and the golden altars and the Viceroys rotting with 
plague inside their armor. 

They flew over the lake dwellings of the Trojas in Cataca, painted in 
lunatic colors, with pens holding iguanas raised for food and balsam 
apples and crepe myrtle hanging in the lacustrine gardens. Excited by 
everyone's shouting, hundreds of naked children plunged into the 
water, jumping out of windows, jumping from the roofs of the houses 
and from the canoes that they handled with astonishing skill, and 
diving like shad to recover the bundles of clothing, the bottles of cough 
syrup, the beneficent food that the beautiful lady with the feathered 
hat threw to them from the basket of the balloon. 
They flew over the dark ocean of the banana plantations, whose 
silence reached them like a lethal vapor, and Fermina Daza 
remembered herself at the age of three, perhaps four, walking through 
the shadowy forest holding the hand of her mother, who was almost a 
girl herself, surrounded by other women dressed in muslin, just like 
her mother, with white parasols and hats made of gauze. The pilot, 
who was observing the world through a spyglass, said: "They seem 
dead." He passed the spyglass to Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who saw the 
oxcarts in the cultivated fields, the boundary lines of the railroad 



tracks, the blighted irrigation ditches, and wherever he looked he saw 
human bodies. Someone said that the cholera was ravaging the 
villages of the Great Swamp. Dr. Urbino, as he spoke, continued to 
look through the spyglass. 

"Well, it must be a very special form of cholera," he said, "because 
every single corpse has received the coup de grace through the back of 
the neck." 

A short while later they flew over a foaming sea, and they landed 
without incident on a broad, hot beach whose surface, cracked with 
niter burned like fire. The officials were there with no more protection 
against the sun than ordinary umbrellas, the elementary schools were 
there waving little flags in time to the music, and the beauty queens 
with scorched flowers and crowns made of gold cardboard, and the 
brass band of the prosperous town of Gayra, which in those days was 
the best along the Caribbean coast. All that Fermina Daza wanted was 
to see her birthplace again, to confront it with her earliest memories, 
but no one was allowed to go there because of the dangers of the 
plague. Dr. Juvenal Urbino delivered the historic letter, which was then 
mislaid among other papers and never seen again, and the entire 
delegation almost suffocated in the tedium of the speeches. The pilot 
could not make the balloon ascend again, and at last they were led on 
muleback to the dock at Pueblo Viejo, where the swamp met the sea. 
Fermina Daza was sure she had passed through there with her mother 
when she was very young, in a cart drawn by a team of oxen. When 
she was older, she had repeated the story several times to her father, 
who died insisting that she could not possibly recall that. 
"I remember the trip very well, and what you say is accurate," he told 
her, "but it happened at least five years before you were born." 



Three days later the members of the balloon expedition, devastated by 
a bad night of storms, returned to their port of origin, where they 
received a heroes' welcome. Lost in the crowd, of course, was 
Florentino Ariza, who recognized the traces of terror on Fermina Daza's 
face. Nevertheless he saw her again that same afternoon in a cycling 
exhibition that was also sponsored by her husband, and she showed no 
sign of fatigue. She rode an uncommon velocipede that resembled 
something from a circus, with a very high front wheel, over which she 
was seated, and a very small back wheel that gave almost no support. 
She wore a pair of loose trousers trimmed in red, which scandalized 
the older ladies and disconcerted the gentlemen, but no one was 
indifferent to her skill. 

That, along with so many other ephemeral images in the course of so 
many years, would suddenly appear to Florentino Ariza at the whim of 
fate, and disappear again in the same way, leaving behind a throb of 
longing in his heart. Taken together, they marked the passage of his 
life, for he experienced the cruelty of time not so much in his own 
flesh as in the imperceptible changes he discerned in Fermina Daza 
each time he saw her. 

One night he went to Don Sancho's Inn, an elegant colonial restaurant, 
and sat in the most remote corner, as was his custom when he ate his 
frugal meals alone. All at once, in the large mirror on the back wall, 
he caught a glimpse of Fermina Daza sitting at a table with her 
husband and two other couples, at an angle that allowed him to see 
her reflected in all her splendor. She was unguarded, she engaged in 
conversation with grace and laughter that exploded like fireworks, and 
her beauty was more radiant under the enormous teardrop 
chandeliers: once again, Alice had gone through the looking glass. 



Holding his breath, Florentine) Ariza observed her at his pleasure: he 
saw her eat, he saw her hardly touch her wine, he saw her joke with 
the fourth in the line of Don Sanchos; from his solitary table he shared 
a moment of her life, and for more than an hour he lingered, unseen, 
in the forbidden precincts of her intimacy. Then he drank four more 
cups of coffee to pass the time until he saw her leave with the rest of 
the group. They passed so close to him that he could distinguish her 
scent among the clouds of other perfumes worn by her companions. 
From that night on, and for almost a year afterward, he laid 
unrelenting siege to the owner of the inn, offering him whatever he 
wanted, money or favors or whatever he desired most in life, if he 
would sell him the mirror. It was not easy, because old Don Sancho 
believed the legend that the beautiful frame, carved by Viennese 
cabinetmakers, was the twin of another, which had belonged to Marie 
Antoinette and had disappeared without a trace: a pair of unique 
jewels. When at last he surrendered, Florentino Ariza hung the mirror 
in his house, not for the exquisite frame but because of the place 
inside that for two hours had been occupied by her beloved reflection. 
When he saw Fermina Daza she was almost always on her husband's 
arm, the two of them in perfect harmony, moving through their own 
space with the astonishing fluidity of Siamese cats, which was broken 
only when they stopped to greet him. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, in fact, 
shook his hand with warm cordiality, and on occasion even permitted 
himself a pat on the shoulder. She, on the other hand, kept him 
relegated to an impersonal regime of formalities and never made the 
slightest gesture that might allow him to suspect that she remembered 
him from her unmarried days. They lived in two different worlds, but 
while he made every effort to reduce the distance between them, 



every step she took was in the opposite direction. It was a long time 
before he dared to think that her indifference was no more than a 
shield for her timidity. This occurred to him suddenly, at the 
christening of the first freshwater vessel built in the local shipyards, 
which was also the first official occasion at which Florentino Ariza, as 
First Vice President of the R.C.C., represented Uncle Leo XI I . This 
coincidence imbued the ceremony with special solemnity, and 
everyone of any significance in the life of the city was present. 
Florentino Ariza was looking after his guests in the main salon of the 
ship, still redolent of fresh paint and tar, when there was a burst of 
applause on the docks, and the band struck up a triumphal march. He 
had to repress the trembling that was almost as old as he was when he 
saw the beautiful woman of his dreams on her husband's arm, splendid 
in her maturity, striding like a queen from another time past the honor 
guard in parade uniform, under the shower of paper streamers and 
flower petals tossed at them from the windows. Both responded to the 
ovation with a wave of the hand, but she was so dazzling, dressed in 
imperial gold from her high-heeled slippers and the foxtails at her 
throat to her bell-shaped hat, that she seemed to be alone in the midst 
of the crowd. 

Florentino Ariza waited for them on the bridge with the provincial 
officials, surrounded by the crash of the music and the fireworks and 
the three heavy screams from the ship, which enveloped the dock in 
steam. J uvenal Urbino greeted the members of the reception line with 
that naturalness so typical of him, which made everyone think the 
Doctor bore him a special fondness: first the ship's captain in his dress 
uniform, then the Archbishop, then the Governor with his and the 
Mayor with his, and then the military commander, who was a 



newcomer from the Andes. Beyond the officials stood Florentino Ariza, 
dressed in dark clothing and almost invisible among so many eminent 
people. After greeting the military commander, Fermina seemed to 
hesitate before Florentino Ariza's outstretched hand. The military man, 
prepared to introduce them, asked her if they did not know each other. 
She did not say yes and she did not say no, but she held out her hand 
to Florentino Ariza with a salon smile. The same thing had occurred 
twice in the past, and would occur again, and Florentino Ariza always 
accepted these occasions with a strength of character worthy of 
Fermina Daza. But that afternoon he asked himself, with his infinite 
capacity for illusion, if such pitiless indifference might not be a 
subterfuge for hiding the torments of love. 

The mere idea excited his youthful desires. Once again he haunted 
Fermina Daza's villa, filled with the same longings he had felt when he 
was on duty in the little Park of the Evangels, but his calculated 
intention was not that she see him, but rather that he see her and 
know that she was still in the world. Now, however, it was difficult for 
him to escape notice. The District of La Manga was on a semi-deserted 
island, separated from the historic city by a canal of green water and 
covered by thickets of icaco plum, which had sheltered Sunday lovers 
in colonial times. In recent years, the old stone bridge built by the 
Spaniards had been torn down, and in its stead was one made of brick 
and lined with streetlamps for the new mule-drawn trolleys. At first the 
residents of La Manga had to endure a torture that had not been 
anticipated during construction, which was sleeping so close to the 
city's first electrical plant whose vibration was a constant earthquake. 
Not even Dr. Juvenal Urbino, with all his prestige, could persuade them 
to move it where it would not disturb anyone, until his proven 



complicity with Divine Providence interceded on his behalf. One night 
the boiler in the plant blew up in a fearful explosion, flew over the new 
houses, sailed across half the city, and destroyed the largest gallery in 
the former convent of St. J ulian the Hospitaler. The old ruined building 
had been abandoned at the beginning of the year, but the boiler 
caused the deaths of four prisoners who had escaped from the local jail 
earlier that night and were hiding in the chapel. 
The peaceful suburb with its beautiful tradition of love was, however, 
not the most propitious for unrequited love when it became a luxury 
neighborhood. The streets were dusty in summer, swamp-like in 
winter, and desolate all year round, and the scattered houses were 
hidden behind leafy gardens and had mosaic tile terraces instead of 
oldfashioned projecting balconies, as if they had been built for the 
purpose of discouraging furtive lovers. It was just as well that at this 
time it became fashionable to drive out in the afternoon in hired old 
Victorias that had been converted to one-horse carriages, and that the 
excursion ended on a hill where one could appreciate the 
heartbreaking twilights of October better than from the lighthouse, and 
observe the watchful sharks lurking at the seminarians' beach, and see 
the Thursday ocean liner, huge and white, that could almost be 
touched with one's hands as it passed through the harbor channel. 
Florentino Ariza would hire a Victoria after a hard day at the office, but 
instead of folding down the top, as was customary during the hot 
months, he would stay hidden in the depths of the seat, invisible in the 
darkness, always alone, and requesting unexpected routes so as not to 
arouse the evil thoughts of the driver. I n reality, the only thing that 
interested him on the drive was the pink marble Parthenon half hidden 
among leafy banana and mango trees, a luckless replica of the idyllic 



mansions on Louisiana cotton plantations. Fermina Daza's children 
returned home a little before five. Florentino Ariza would see them 
arrive in the family carriage, and then he would see Dr. Juvenal Urbino 
leave for his routine house calls, but in almost a year of vigilance he 
never even caught the glimpse he so desired. 

One afternoon when he insisted on his solitary drive despite the first 
devastating rains of June, the horse slipped and fell in the mud. 
Florentino Ariza realized with horror that they were just in front of 
Fermina Daza's villa, and he pleaded with the driver, not thinking that 
his consternation might betray him. 
"Not here, please," he shouted. "Anywhere but here." 
Bewildered by his urgency, the driver tried to raise the horse without 
unharnessing him, and the axle of the carriage broke. Florentino Ariza 
managed to climb out of the coach in the driving rain and endure his 
embarrassment until passersby in other carriages offered to take him 
home. While he was waiting, a servant of the Urbino family "ad seen 
him, his clothes soaked through, standing in mud up to his Knees, and 
she brought him an umbrella so that he could take refuge on the 
terrace. In the wildest of his deliriums Florentino Ariza had never 
dreamed of such good fortune, but on that afternoon he would have 
died rather than allow Fermina Daza to see him in that condition. 
When they lived in the old city, J uvenal Urbino and his family would 
walk on Sundays from their house to the Cathedral for eight o'clock 
Mass, which for them was more a secular ceremony than a religious 
one. Then, when they moved, they continued to drive there for several 
years, and at times they visited with friends under the palm trees in 
the park. But when the temple of the theological seminary was built in 
La Manga, with a private beach and its own cemetery, they no longer 



went to the Cathedral except on very solemn occasions. Ignorant of 
these changes, Florentino Ariza waited Sunday after Sunday on the 
terrace of the Parish Cafe, watching the people conning out of all three 
Masses. Then he realized his mistake and went to the new church, 
which was fashionable until just a few years ago, and there, at eight 
o'clock sharp on four Sundays in August, he saw Dr. Juvenal Urbino 
with his children, but Fermina Daza was not with them. On one of those 
Sundays he visited the new cemetery adjacent to the church, where 
the residents of La Manga were building their sumptuous pantheons, 
and his heart skipped a beat when he discovered the most sumptuous 
of all in the shade of the great ceiba trees. It was already complete, 
with Gothic stained-glass windows and marble angels and gravestones 
with gold lettering for the entire family. Among them, of course, was 
that of Doha Fermina Daza de Urbino de la Calle, and next to it her 
husband's, with a common epitaph: Together still in the peace of the 
Lord. 

For the rest of the year, Fermina Daza did not attend any civic or 
social ceremonies, not even the Christmas celebrations, in which she 
and her husband had always been illustrious protagonists. But her 
absence was most notable on the opening night of the opera season. 
During intermission, Florentino Ariza happened on a group that, 
beyond any doubt, was discussing her without mentioning her name. 
They said that one midnight the previous J une someone had seen her 
boarding the Cunard ocean liner en route to Panama, and that she 
wore a dark veil to hide the ravages of the shameful disease that was 
consuming her. Someone asked what terrible illness would dare to 
attack a woman with so much power, and the answer he received was 
saturated with black bile: 



"A lady so distinguished could suffer only from consumption." 
Florentino Ariza knew that the wealthy of his country did not contract 
short-term diseases. Either they died without warning, almost always 
on the eve of a major holiday that could not be celebrated because of 
the period of mourning, or they faded away in long, abominable 
illnesses whose most intimate details eventually became public 
knowledge. Seclusion in Panama was almost an obligatory penance in 
the life of the rich. 

They submitted to God's will in the Adventist Hospital, an immense 
white warehouse lost in the prehistoric downpours of Darien, where the 
sick lost track of the little life that was left to them, and in whose 
solitary rooms with their burlap windows no one could tell with 
certainty if the smell of carbolic acid was the odor of health or of 
death. Those who recovered came back bearing splendid gifts that they 
would distribute with a free hand and a kind of agonized longing to be 
pardoned for their indiscretion in still being alive. Some returned with 
their abdomens crisscrossed by barbarous stitches that seemed to have 
been sewn with cobbler's hemp; they would raise their shirts to display 
them when people came to visit, they compared them with those of 
others who had suffocated from excesses of joy, and for the rest of 
their days they would describe and describe again the angelic visions 
they had seen under the influence of chloroform. On the other hand, 
no one ever learned about the visions of those who did not return, 
including the saddest of them all: those who had died as exiles in the 
tuberculosis pavilion, more from the sadness of the rain than because 
of the complications of their disease. 

If he had been forced to choose, Florentino Ariza did not know which 
fate he would have wanted for Fermina Daza. More than anything else 



he wanted the truth, but no matter how unbearable, and regardless of 
how he searched, he could not find it. It was inconceivable to him that 
no one could even give him a hint that would confirm the story he had 
heard. In the world of riverboats, which was his world, no mystery 
could be maintained, no secret could be kept. And yet no one had 
heard anything about the woman in the black veil. No one knew 
anything in a city where everything was known, and where many 
things were known even before they happened, above all if they 
concerned the rich. But no one had any explanation for the 
disappearance of Fermina Daza. Florentino Ariza continued to patrol La 
Manga, continued to hear Mass without devotion in the basilica of the 
seminary, continued to attend civic ceremonies that never would have 
interested him in another state of mind, but the passage of time only 
increased the credibility of the story he had heard. Everything seemed 
normal in the Urbino household, except for the mother's absence. 
As he carried on his investigation, he learned about other events he 
had not known of or into which he had made no inquiries, including the 
death of Lorenzo Daza in the Cantabrian village where he had been 
born. He remembered seeing him for many years in the rowdy chess 
wars at the Parish Cafe, hoarse with so much talking, and growing 
fatter and rougher as he sank into the quicksand of an unfortunate old 
age. They had never exchanged another word since their disagreeable 
breakfast of anise in the previous century, and Florentino Ariza was 
certain that even after he had obtained for his daughter the successful 
marriage that had become his only reason for living, Lorenzo Daza 
remembered him with as much rancor as he felt toward Lorenzo Daza. 
But he was so determined to find out the unequivocal facts regarding 
Fermina Daza's health that he returned to the Parish Cafe to learn 



them from her father, just at the time of the historic tournament in 
which J eremiah de Saint-Amour alone confronted forty-two opponents. 
This was how he discovered that Lorenzo Daza had died, and he 
rejoiced with all his heart, although the price of his joy might be 
having to live without the truth. At last he accepted as true the story of 
the hospital for the terminally ill, and his only consolation was the old 
saying: Sick women live forever. On the days when he felt 
disheartened, he resigned himself to the notion that the news of 
Fermina Daza's death, if it should occur, would find him without his 
having to look for it. 

It never did, for Fermina Daza was alive and well on the ranch, half a 
league from the village of Flores de Maria, where her Cousin 
Hildebranda Sanchez was living, forgotten by the world. She had left 
with no scandal, by mutual agreement with her husband, both of them 
as entangled as adolescents in the only serious crisis they had suffered 
during so many years of stable matrimony. It had taken them by 
surprise in the repose of their maturity, when they felt themselves safe 
from misfortune's sneak attacks, their children grown and 
well-behaved, and the future ready for them to learn how to be old 
without bitterness. It had been something so unexpected for them both 
that they wanted to resolve it not with shouts, tears, and 
intermediaries, as was the custom in the Caribbean, but with the 
wisdom of the nations of Europe, and there was so much vacillation as 
to whether their loyalties lay here or over there that they ended up 
mired in a puerile situation that did not belong anywhere. At last she 
decided to leave, not even knowing why or to what purpose, out of 
sheer fury, and he, inhibited by his sense of guilt, had not been able to 
dissuade her. 



Fermina Daza, in fact, had sailed at midnight in the greatest secrecy 
and with her face covered by a black mantilla, not on a Cunard liner 
bound for Panama, however, but on the regular boat to San J uan de la 
Cienaga, the city where she had been born and had lived until her 
adolescence, and for which she felt a growing homesickness that 
became more and more difficult to bear as the years went by. I n 
defiance of her husband's will, and of the customs of the day, her only 
companion was a fifteen-year-old goddaughter who had been raised as 
a family servant, but the ship captains and the officials at each port 
had been notified of her journey. When she made her rash decision, 
she told her children that she was going to have a change of scene for 
three months or so with Aunt Hildebranda, but her determination was 
not to return. Dr. Juvenal Urbino knew the strength of her character 
very well, and he was so troubled that he accepted her decision with 
humility as God's punishment for the gravity of his sins. But the lights 
on the boat had not yet been lost to view when they both repented of 
their weakness. 
Although they maintained a formal correspondence concerning their 

children and other household matters, almost two years went by 

before either one could find a way back that was not mined with pride. 

During the second year, the children went to spend their school 

vacation in Flores de Maria, and Fermina Daza did the impossible and 

appeared content with her new life. That at least was the conclusion 

drawn by J uvenal Urbino from his son's letters. Moreover, at that time 

the Bishop of Riohacha went there on a pastoral visit, riding under the 

pallium on his celebrated white mule with the trappings embroidered 

in gold. Behind him came pilgrims from remote regions, musicians 

playing accordions, peddlers selling food and amulets; and for three 

days the ranch was overflowing with the crippled and the hopeless, 

who in reality did not come for the learned sermons and the plenary 

indulgences but for the favors of the mule who, it was said, performed 



miracles behind his master's back. The Bishop had frequented the 

home of the Urbino de la Calle family ever since his days as an 

ordinary priest, and one afternoon he escaped from the public 

festivities to have lunch at Hildebranda's ranch. After the meal, during 

which they spoke only of earthly matters, he took Fermina Daza aside 

and asked to hear her confession. She refused in an amiable but firm 

manner, with the explicit argument that she had nothing to repent of. 

Although it was not her purpose, at least not her conscious purpose, 

she was certain that her answer would reach the appropriate ears. 

Dr. Juvenal Urbino used to say, not without a certain cynicism, that it 
was not he who was to blame for those two bitter years of his life but 
his wife's bad habit of smelling the clothes her family took off, and the 
clothes that she herself took off, so that she could tell by the odor if 
they needed to be laundered even though they might appear to be 
clean. She had done this ever since she was a girl, and she never 
thought it worthy of comment until her husband realized what she was 
doing on their wedding night. He also knew that she locked herself in 
the bathroom at least three times a day to smoke, but this did not 
attract his attention because the women of his class were in the habit 
of locking themselves away in groups to talk about men and smoke, 
and even to drink as much as two liters of aguardiente until they had 
passed out on the floor in a brickmason's drunken stupor. But her habit 
of sniffing at all the clothing she happened across seemed to him not 
only inappropriate but unhealthy as well. She took it as a joke, which 
is what she did with everything she did not care to discuss, and she 
said that God had not put that diligent oriole's beak on her face just for 
decoration. One morning, while she was at the market, the servants 
aroused the entire neighborhood in their search for her three-year-old 
son, who was not to be found anywhere in the house. She arrived in 
the middle of the panic, turned around two or three times like a 
tracking mastiff, and found the boy asleep in an armoire where no one 
thought he could possibly be hiding. When her astonished husband 



asked her how she had found him, she replied: 
"By the smell of caca." 

The truth is that her sense of smell not only served her in regard to 

washing clothes or finding lost children: it was the sense that oriented 

her in all areas of life, above all in her social life. Juvenal Urbino had 

observed this throughout his marriage, in particular at the beginning, 

when she was the parvenu in a milieu that had been prejudiced against 

her for three hundred years, and yet she had made her way through 

coral reefs as sharp as knives, not colliding with anyone, with a power 

over the world that could only be a supernatural instinct. That 

frightening faculty, which could just as well have had its origin in a 

millenarian wisdom as in a heart of stone, met its moment of 

misfortune one ill-fated Sunday before Mass when, out of simple habit, 

Fermina Daza sniffed the clothing her husband had worn the evening 

before and experienced the disturbing sensation that she had been in 

bed with another man. 

First she smelled the jacket and the vest while she took the watch 

chain out of the buttonhole and removed the pencil holder and the 

billfold and the loose change from the pockets and placed everything 

on the dresser, and then she smelled the hemmed shirt as she 

removed the tiepin and the topaz cuff links and the gold collar button, 

and then she smelled the trousers as she removed the keyholder with 

its eleven keys and the penknife with its mother-of-pearl handle, and 

finally she smelled the underwear and the socks and the linen 

handkerchief with the embroidered monogram. Beyond any shadow of 

a doubt there was an odor in each of the articles that had not been 

there in all their years of life together, an odor impossible to define 

because it was not the scent of flowers or of artificial essences but of 



something peculiar to human nature. She said nothing, and she did not 
notice the odor every day, but she now sniffed at her husband's 
clothing not to decide if it was ready to launder but with an unbearable 
anxiety that gnawed at her innermost being. 

Fermina Daza did not know where to locate the odor of his clothing in 
her husband's routine. It could not be placed between his morning 
class and lunch, for she supposed that no woman in her right mind 
would make hurried love at that time of day, least of all with 
a visitor, when the house still had to be cleaned, and the beds made, 
and the marketing done, and lunch prepared, and perhaps with the 
added worry that one of the children would be sent home early from 
school because somebody threw a stone at him and hurt his head and 
he would find her at eleven o'clock in the morning, naked in the 
unmade bed and, to make matters worse, with a doctor on top of her. 
She also knew that Dr. Juvenal Urbino made love only at night, better 
yet in absolute darkness, and as a last resort before breakfast when 
the first birds began to chirp. After that time, as he would say, it was 
more work than the pleasure of daytime love was worth to take off 
one's clothes and put them back on again. So that the contamination of 
his clothing could occur only during one of his house calls or during 
some moment stolen from his nights of chess and films. This last 
possibility was difficult to prove, because unlike so many of her 
friends, Fermina Daza was too proud to spy on her husband or to ask 
someone else to do it for her. His schedule of house calls, which 
seemed best suited to infidelity, was also the easiest to keep an eye 
on, because Dr. J uvenal Urbino kept a detailed record of each of his 
patients, including the payment of his fees, from the first time he 
visited them until he ushered them out of this world with a final sign of 



the cross and some words for the salvation of their souls. 
I n the three weeks that followed, Fermina Daza did not find the odor in 
his clothing for a few days, she found it again when she least expected 
it, and then she found it, stronger than ever, for several days in a row, 
although one of those days was a Sunday when there had been a 
family gathering and the two of them had not been apart for even a 
moment. Contrary to her normal custom and even her own desires, 
she found herself in her husband's office one afternoon as if she were 
someone else, doing something that she would never do, deciphering 
with an exquisite Bengalese magnifying glass his intricate notes on the 
house calls he had made during the last few months. It was the first 
time she had gone alone into that office, saturated with showers of 
creosote and crammed with books bound in the hides of unknown 
animals, blurred school pictures, honorary degrees, astrolabes, and 
elaborately worked daggers collected over the years: a secret 
sanctuary that she always considered the only part of her husband's 
private life to which she had no access because it was not part of love, 
so that the few times she had been there she had gone with him, and 
the visits had always been very brief. She did not feel she had the 
right to go in alone, much less to engage in what seemed to be 
indecent prying. But there she was. She wanted to find the truth, and 
she searched for it with an anguish almost as great as her terrible fear 
of finding it, and she was driven by an irresistible wind even stronger 
than her innate haughtiness, even stronger than her dignity: an agony 
that bewitched her. 

She was able to draw no conclusions, because her husband's patients, 
except for mutual friends, were part of his private domain; they were 
people without identity, known not by their faces but by their pains, 



not by the color of their eyes or the evasions of their hearts but by the 
size of their livers, the coating on their tongues, the blood in their 
urine, the hallucinations of their feverish nights. They were people who 
believed in her husband, who believed they lived because of him when 
in reality they lived for him, and who in the end were reduced to a 
phrase written in his own hand at the bottom of the medical file: Be 
calm. God awaits you at the door. Fermina Daza left his study after 
two fruitless hours, with the feeling that she had allowed herself to be 
seduced by indecency. Urged on by her imagination, she began to 
discover changes in her husband. She found him evasive, without 
appetite at the table or in bed, prone to exasperation and ironic 
answers, and when he was at home he was no longer the tranquil man 
he had once been but a caged lion. For the first time since their 
marriage, she began to monitor the times he was late, to keep track of 
them to the minute, to tell him lies in order to learn the truth, but then 
she felt wounded to the quick by the contradictions. One night she 
awoke with a start, terrified by a vision of her husband staring at her 
in the darkness with eyes that seemed full of hatred. She had suffered 
a similar fright in her youth, when she had seen Florentino Ariza at the 
foot of her bed, but that apparition had been full of love, not hate. 
Besides, this time it was not fantasy: her husband was awake at two in 
the morning, sitting up in bed to watch her while she slept, but when 
she asked him why, he denied it. He lay back on the pillow and said: 
"You must have been dreaming." 

After that night, and after similar episodes that occurred during that 
time, when Fermina Daza could not tell for certain where reality ended 
and where illusion began, she had the overwhelming revelation that 
she was losing her mind. At last she realized that her husband had not 



taken Communion on the Thursday of Corpus Christi or on any Sunday 
in recent weeks, and he had not found time for that year's retreats. 
When she asked him the reason for those unusual changes in his 
spiritual health, she received an evasive answer. This was the decisive 
clue, because he had not failed to take Communion on an important 
feast day since he had made his first Communion, at the age of eight. 
In this way she realized not only that her husband was in a state of 
mortal sin but that he had resolved to persist in it, since he did not go 
to his confessor for help. She had never imagined that she could suffer 
so much for something that seemed to be the absolute opposite of 
love, but she was suffering, and she resolved that the only way she 
could keep from dying was to burn out the nest of vipers that was 
poisoning her soul. And that is what she did. One afternoon she began 
to darn socks on the terrace while her husband was reading, as he did 
every day after his siesta. Suddenly she interrupted her work, pushed 
her eyeglasses up onto her forehead, and without any trace of 
harshness, she asked for an explanation: 
"Doctor." 

He was immersed in L'lle des pingouins, the novel that everyone was 
reading in those days, and he answered without surfacing: "Oui." She 
insisted: 
"Look at me." 

He did so, looking without seeing her through the fog of his reading 
glasses, but he did not have to take them off to feel burned by the 
raging fire in her eyes. 

"What is going on?" he asked. "You know better than I," she said. 
That was all she said. She lowered her glasses and continued darning 
socks. Dr. J uvenal Urbino knew then that the long hours of anguish 



were over. The moment had not been as he had foreseen it; rather 
than a seismic tremor in his heart, it was a calming blow, and a great 
relief that what was bound to happen sooner or later had happened 
sooner rather than later: the ghost of Miss Barbara Lynch had entered 
his house at last. 

Dr. J uvenal Urbino had met her four months earlier as she waited her 
turn in the clinic of Misericordia Hospital, and he knew immediately 
that something irreparable had just occurred in his destiny. She was a 
tall, elegant, large-boned mulatta, with skin the color and softness of 
molasses, and that morning she wore a red dress with white polka dots 
and a broad-brimmed hat of the same fabric, which shaded her face 
down to her eyelids. Her sex seemed more pronounced than that of 
other human beings. Dr. Juvenal Urbino did not attend patients in the 
clinic, but whenever he passed by and had time to spare, he would go 
in to remind his more advanced students that there is no medicine 
better than a good diagnosis. So that he arranged to be present at the 
examination of the unforeseen mulatta, making certain that his pupils 
would not notice any gesture of his that did not appear to be casual 
and barely looking at her, but fixing her name and address with care 
in his memory. That afternoon, after his last house call, he had his 
carriage pass by the address that she had given in the consulting 
room, and in fact there she was, enjoying the coolness on her terrace. 
It was a typical Antillean house, painted yellow even to the tin roof, 
with burlap windows and pots of carnations and ferns hanging in the 
doorway. It rested on wooden pilings in the salt marshes of Mala 
Crianza. A troupial sang in the cage that hung from the eaves. Across 
the street was a primary school, and the children rushing out obliged 
the coachman to keep a tight hold on the reins so that the horse would 



not shy. It was a stroke of luck, for Miss Barbara Lynch had time to 
recognize the Doctor. She waved to him as if they were old friends, 
she invited him to have coffee while the confusion abated, and he was 
delighted to accept (although it was not his custom to drink coffee) and 
to listen to her talk about herself, which was the only thing that had 
interested him since the morning and the only thing that was going to 
interest him, without a moment's respite, during the months to follow. 
Once, soon after he had married, a friend told him, with his wife 
present, that sooner or later he would have to confront a mad passion 
that could endanger the stability of his marriage. He, who thought he 
knew himself, knew the strength of his moral roots, had laughed at the 
prediction. And now it had come true. Miss Barbara Lynch, Doctor of 
Theology, was the only child of the Reverend Jonathan B. Lynch, a 
lean black Protestant minister who rode on a mule through the 
povertystricken settlements in the salt marshes, preaching the word of 
one of the many gods that Dr. J uvenal Urbino wrote with a small g to 
distinguish them from his. She spoke good Spanish, with a certain 
roughness in the syntax, and her frequent slips heightened her charm. 
She would be twenty-eight years old in December, not long ago she 
had divorced another minister, who was a student of her father's and 
to whom she had been unhappily married for two years, and she had 
no desire to repeat the offense. She said: "I have no more love than 
my troupial." But Dr. Urbino was too serious to think that she said it 
with hidden intentions. On the contrary: he asked himself in 
bewilderment if so many opportunities coming together might not be 
one of God's pitfalls, which he would then have to pay for dearly, but 
he dismissed the thought without delay as a piece of theological 
nonsense resulting from his state of confusion. 



As he was about to leave, he made a casual remark about that 
morning's medical consultation, knowing that nothing pleases patients 
more than talking about their ailments, and she was so splendid 
talking about hers that he promised he would return the next day, at 
four o'clock sharp, to examine her with greater care. She was 
dismayed: she knew that a doctor of his qualifications was far above 
her ability to pay, but he reassured her: "In this profession we try to 
have the rich pay for the poor." Then he marked in his notebook: Miss 
Barbara Lynch, Mala Crianza Salt Marsh, Saturday, 4 p.m. Months 
later, Fermina Daza was to read that notation, augmented by details of 
the diagnosis, treatment, and evolution of the disease. The name 
attracted her attention, and it suddenly occurred to her that she was 
one of those dissolute artists from the New Orleans fruit boats, but the 
address made her think that she must come from J amaica, a black 
woman, of course, and she eliminated her without a second thought as 
not being to her husband's taste. 

Dr. J uvenal Urbino came ten minutes early for the Saturday 
appointment, and Miss Lynch had not finished dressing to receive him. 
He had not felt so much tension since his days in Paris when he had to 
present himself for an oral examination. As she lay on her canvas bed, 
wearing a thin silk slip, Miss Lynch's beauty was endless. Everything 
about her was large and intense: her siren's thighs, her slow-burning 
skin, her astonished breasts, her diaphanous gums with their perfect 
teeth, her whole body radiating a vapor of good health that was the 
human odor Fermina Daza had discovered in her husband's clothing. 
She had gone to the clinic because she suffered from something that 
she, with much charm, called "twisted colons," and Dr. Urbino thought 
that it was a symptom that should not be ignored. So he palpated her 



internal organs with more intention than attention, and as he did so he 

discovered in amazement that this marvelous creature was as beautiful 

inside as out, and then he gave himself over to the delights of touch, 

no longer the best-qualified physician along the Caribbean coastline 

but a poor soul tormented by his tumultuous instincts. Only once 

before in his austere professional life had something similar happened 

to him, and that had been the day of his greatest shame, because the 

indignant patient had moved his hand away, sat up in bed, and said to 

him: "What you want may happen, but it will not be like this." Miss 

Lynch, on the other hand, abandoned herself to his hands, and when 

she was certain that the Doctor was no longer thinking about his 

science, she said: 

"I thought this not permitted by your ethics." 

He was as drenched by perspiration as if he had just stepped out of a 

pool wearing all his clothes, and he dried his hands and face with a 

towel. 

"Our code of ethics supposes," he said, "that we doctors are made of 

wood." 

"The fact I thought so does not mean you cannot do," she said. "Just 

think what it mean for poor black woman like me to have such a 

famous man notice her." 

"I have not stopped thinking about you for an instant," he said. 

It was so tremulous a confession that it might have inspired pity. But 

she saved him from all harm with a laugh that lit up the bedroom. 

"I know since I saw you in hospital, Doctor," she said. "Black I am but 

not a fool." 

It was far from easy. Miss Lynch wanted her honor protected, she 

wanted security and love, in that order, and she believed that she 



deserved them. She gave Dr. Urbino the opportunity to seduce her but 
not to penetrate her inner sanctum, even when she was alone in the 
house. She would go no further than allowing him to repeat the 
ceremony of palpation and auscultation with all the ethical violations 
he could desire, but without taking off her clothes. For his part, he 
could not let go of the bait once he had bitten, and he continued his 
almost daily incursions. For reasons of a practical nature, it was close 
to impossible for him to maintain a continuing relationship with Miss 
Lynch, but he was too weak to stop, as he would later be too weak to 
go any further. This was his limit. 

The Reverend Lynch did not lead a regular life, for he would ride away 
on his mule on the spur of the moment, carrying Bibles and 
evangelical pamphlets on one side and provisions on the other, and he 
would return when least expected. Another difficulty was the school 
across the street, for the children would recite their lessons as they 
looked out the windows, and what they saw with greatest clarity was 
the house across the way, with its doors and windows open wide from 
six o'clock in the morning, they saw Miss Lynch hanging the birdcage 
from the eaves so that the troupial could learn the recited lessons, 
they saw her wearing a bright-colored turban and going about her 
household tasks as she recited along with them in her brilliant 
Caribbean voice, and later they saw her sitting on the porch, reciting 
the afternoon psalms by herself in English. 

They had to choose a time when the children were not there, and there 
were only two possibilities: the afternoon recess for lunch, between 
twelve and two, which was also when the Doctor had his lunch, or late 
in the afternoon, after the children had gone home. This was always 
the best time, although by then the Doctor had made his rounds and 



had only a few minutes to spare before it was time for him to eat with 
his family. The third problem, and the most serious for him, was his 
own situation. It was not possible for him to go there without his 
carriage, which was very well known and always had to wait outside 
her door. He could have made an accomplice of his coachman, as did 
most of his friends at the Social Club, but that was not in his nature. I n 
fact, when his visits to Miss Lynch became too obvious, the liveried 
family coachman himself dared to ask if it would not be better for him 
to come back later so that the carriage would not spend so much time 
at her door. Dr. Urbino, in a sharp response that was not typical of 
him, cut him off. 

"This is the first time since I know you that I have heard you say 
something you should not have," he said. "Well, then: I will assume it 
was never said." 

There was no solution. I n a city like this, it was impossible to hide an 
illness when the Doctor's carriage stood at the door. At times the 
Doctor himself took the initiative and went on foot, if distance 
permitted, or in a hired carriage, to avoid malicious or premature 
assumptions. Such deceptions, however, were to little avail. Since the 
prescriptions ordered in pharmacies revealed the truth, Dr. Urbino 
would always prescribe counterfeit medicines along with the correct 
ones in order to preserve the sacred right of the sick to die in peace 
along with the secret of their illness. Similarly, he was able in various 
truthful ways to account for the presence of his carriage outside the 
house of Miss Lynch, but he could not allow it to stay there too long, 
least of all for the amount of time he would have desired, which was 
the rest of his life. 
The world became a hell for him. For once the initial madness was 



sated, they both became aware of the risks involved, and Dr. J uvenal 
Urbino never had the resolve to face a scandal. I n the deliriums of 
passion he promised everything, but when it was over, everything was 
left for later. On the other hand, as his desire to be with her grew, so 
did his fear of losing her, so that their meetings became more and 
more hurried and problematic. He thought about nothing else. He 
waited for the afternoons with unbearable longing, he forgot his other 
commitments, he forgot everything but her, but as his carriage 
approached the Mala Crianza salt marsh he prayed to God that an 
unforeseen obstacle would force it to drive past. He went to her in a 
state of such anguish that at times as he turned the corner he was glad 
to catch a glimpse of the woolly head of the Reverend Lynch, who read 
on the terrace while his daughter catechized neighborhood children in 
the living room with recited passages of scripture. Then he would go 
home relieved that he was not defying fate again, but later he would 
feel himself going mad with the desire for it to be five o'clock in the 
afternoon all day, every day. 

So their love became impossible when the carriage at her door 
became too conspicuous, and after three months it became nothing 
less than ridiculous. Without time to say anything, Miss Lynch would go 
to the bedroom as soon as she saw her agitated lover walk in the door. 
She took the precaution of wearing a full skirt on the days she 
expected him, a charming skirt from Jamaica with red flowered ruffles, 
but with no underwear, nothing, in the belief that this convenience was 
going to help him ward off his fear. But he squandered everything she 
did to make him happy. Panting and drenched with perspiration, he 
rushed after her into the bedroom, throwing everything on the floor, 
his walking stick, his medical bag, his Panama hat, and he made 



panic-stricken love with his trousers down around his knees, with his 
jacket buttoned so that it would not get in his way, with his gold watch 
chain across his vest, with his shoes on, with everything on, and more 
concerned with leaving as soon as possible than with achieving 
pleasure. She was left dangling, barely at the entrance of her tunnel of 
solitude, while he was already buttoning up again, as exhausted as if 
he had made absolute love on the dividing line between life and death, 
when in reality he had accomplished no more than the physical act that 
is only a part of the feat of love. But he had finished in time: the exact 
time needed to give an injection during a routine visit. Then he 
returned home ashamed of his weakness, longing for death, cursing 
himself for the lack of courage that kept him from asking Fermina 
Daza to pull down his trousers and burn his ass on the brazier. 
He did not eat, he said his prayers without conviction, in bed he 
pretended to continue his siesta reading while his wife walked round 
and round the house putting the world in order before going to bed. As 
he nodded over his book, he began to sink down into the inevitable 
mangrove swamp of Miss Lynch, into her air of a recumbent forest 
glade, his deathbed, and then he could think of nothing except 
tomorrow's five minutes to five o'clock in the afternoon and her 
waiting for him in bed with nothing but the mound of her dark bush 
under her madwoman's skirt from Jamaica: the hellish circle. 
I n the past few years he had become conscious of the burden of his 
own body. He recognized the symptoms. He had read about them in 
textbooks, he had seen them confirmed in real life, in older patients 
with no history of serious ailments who suddenly began to describe 
perfect syndromes that seemed to come straight from medical texts 
and yet turned out to be imaginary. His professor of children's clinical 



medicine at La Salpetriere had recommended pediatrics as the most 
honest specialization, because children become sick only when in fact 
they are sick, and they cannot communicate with the physician using 
conventional words but only with concrete symptoms of real diseases. 
After a certain age, however, adults either had the symptoms without 
the diseases or, what was worse, serious diseases with the symptoms 
of minor ones. He distracted them with palliatives, giving time enough 
time to teach them not to feel their ailments, so that they could live 
with them in the rubbish heap of old age. Dr. Juvenal Urbino never 
thought that a physician his age, who believed he had seen everything, 
would not be able to overcome the uneasy feeling that he was ill when 
he was not. Or what was worse, not believe he was, out of pure 
scientific prejudice, when perhaps he really was. At the age of forty, 
half in earnest and half in jest, he had said in class: "All I need in life 
is someone who understands me." But when he found himself lost in 
the labyrinth of Miss Lynch, he no longer was jesting. 
All the real or imaginary symptoms of his older patients made their 
appearance in his body. He felt the shape of his liver with such clarity 
that he could tell its size without touching it. He felt the dozing cat's 
purr of his kidneys, he felt the iridescent brilliance of his vesicles, he 
felt the humming blood in his arteries. At times he awoke at dawn 
gasping for air, like a fish out of water. He had fluid in his heart. He 
felt it lose the beat for a moment, he felt it syncopate like a school 
marching band, once, twice, and then, because God is good, he felt it 
recover at last. But instead of having recourse to the same distracting 
remedies he gave to his patients, he went mad with terror. It was true: 
all he needed in life, even at the age of fifty-eight, was someone who 
understood him. So he turned to Fermina Daza, the person who loved 



him best and whom he loved best in the world, and with whom he had 
just eased his conscience. 

For this occurred after she interrupted his afternoon reading to ask him 
to look at her, and he had the first indication that his hellish circle had 
been discovered. But he did not know how, because it would have 
been impossible for him to conceive of Fermina Daza's learning the 
truth by smell alone. In any case, for a long time this had not been a 
good city for keeping secrets. Soon after the first home telephones 
were installed, several marriages that seemed stable were destroyed 
by anonymous tale- bearing calls, and a number of frightened families 
either canceled their service or refused to have a telephone for many 
years. Dr. Urbino knew that his wife had too much self-respect to allow 
so much as an attempt at anonymous betrayal by telephone, and he 
could not imagine anyone daring to try it under his own name. But he 
feared the old method: a note slipped under the door by an unknown 
hand could be effective, not only because it guaranteed the double 
anonymity of sender and receiver, but because its time-honored 
ancestry permitted one to attribute to it some kind of metaphysical 
connection to the designs of Divine Providence. 

Jealousy was unknown in his house: during more than thirty years of 
conjugal peace, Dr. Urbino had often boasted in public—and until now it 
had been true--that he was like those Swedish matches that light only 
with their own box. But he did not know how a woman with as much 
pride, dignity, and strength of character as his wife would react in the 
face of proven infidelity. So that after looking at her as she had asked, 
nothing occurred to him but to lower his eyes again in order to hide his 
embarrassment and continue the pretense of being lost among the 
sweet, meandering rivers of Alca Island until he could think of 



something else. Fermina Daza, for her part, said nothing more either. 
When she finished darning the socks, she tossed everything into the 
sewing basket in no particular order, gave instructions in the kitchen 
for supper, and went to the bedroom. 

Then he reached the admirable decision not to go to Miss Lynch's 
house at five o'clock in the afternoon. The vows of eternal love, the 
dream of a discreet house for her alone where he could visit her with 
no unexpected interruptions, their unhurried happiness for as long as 
they lived—everything he had promised in the blazing heat of love was 
canceled forever after. The last thing Miss Lynch received from him 
was an emerald tiara in a little box wrapped in paper from the 
pharmacy, so that the coachman himself thought it was an emergency 
prescription and handed it to her with no comment, no message, 
nothing in writing. Dr. Urbino never saw her again, not even by 
accident, and God alone knows how much grief his heroic resolve cost 
him or how many bitter tears he had to shed behind the locked 
lavatory door in order to survive this private catastrophe. At five 
o'clock, instead of going to see her, he made a profound act of 
contrition before his confessor, and on the following Sunday he took 
Communion, his heart broken but his soul at peace. 
That night, following his renunciation, as he was undressing for bed, he 
recited for Fermina Daza the bitter litany of his early morning 
insomnia, his sudden stabbing pains, his desire to weep in the 
afternoon, the encoded symptoms of secret love, which he recounted 
as if they were the miseries of old age. He had to tell someone or die, 
or else tell the truth, and so the relief he obtained was sanctified 
within the domestic rituals of love. She listened to him with close 
attention, but without looking at him, without saying anything as she 



picked up every article of clothing he removed, sniffed it with no 
gesture or change of expression that might betray her wrath, then 
crumpled it and tossed it into the wicker basket for dirty clothes. She 
did not find the odor, but it was all the same: tomorrow was another 
day. Before he knelt down to pray before the altar in the bedroom, he 
ended the recital of his misery with a sigh as mournful as it was 
sincere: "I think I am going to die." She did not even blink when she 
replied. 

"That would be best," she said. "Then we could both have some 
peace." 

Years before, during the crisis of a dangerous illness, he had spoken of 
the possibility of dying, and she had made the same brutal reply. Dr. 
Urbino attributed it to the natural hardheartedness of women, which 
allows the earth to continue revolving around the sun, because at that 
time he did not know that she always erected a barrier of wrath to 
hide her fear. And in this case it was the most terrible one of all, the 
fear of losing him. 

That night, on the other hand, she wished him dead with all her heart, 
and this certainty alarmed him. Then he heard her slow sobbing in the 
darkness as she bit the pillow so he would not hear. He was puzzled, 
because he knew that she did not cry easily for any affliction of body 
or soul. She cried only in rage, above all if it had its origins in her 
terror of culpability, and then the more she cried the more enraged 
she became, because she could never forgive her weakness in crying. 
He did not dare to console her, knowing that it would have been like 
consoling a tiger run through by a spear, and he did not have the 
courage to tell her that the reason for her weeping had disappeared 
that afternoon, had been pulled out by the roots, forever, even from 



his memory. 

Fatigue overcame him for a few minutes. When he awoke, she had lit 
her dim bedside lamp and lay there with her eyes open, but without 
crying. Something definitive had happened to her while he slept: the 
sediment that had accumulated at the bottom of her life over the 
course of so many years had been stirred up by the torment of her 
jealousy and had floated to the surface, and it had aged her all at 
once. Shocked by her sudden wrinkles, her faded lips, the ashes in her 
hair, he risked telling her that she should try to sleep: it was after two 
o'clock. She spoke, not looking at him but with no trace of rage in her 
voice, almost with gentleness. 
"I have a right to know who she is," she said. 

And then he told her everything, feeling as if he were lifting the weight 
of the world from his shoulders, because he was convinced that she 
already knew and only needed to confirm the details. But she did not, 
of course, so that as he spoke she began to cry again, not with her 
earlier timid sobs but with abundant salty tears that ran down her 
cheeks and burned her nightdress and inflamed her life, because he 
had not done what she, with her heart in her mouth, had hoped he 
would do, which was to be a man: deny everything, and swear on his 
life it was not true, and grow indignant at the false accusation, and 
shout curses at this ill-begotten society that did not hesitate to trample 
on one's honor, and remain imperturbable even when faced with 
crushing proofs of his disloyalty. Then, when he told her that he had 
been with his confessor that afternoon, she feared she would go blind 
with rage. Ever since her days at the Academy she had been convinced 
that the men and women of the Church lacked any virtue inspired by 
God. This was a discordant note in the harmony of the house, which 



they had managed to overlook without mishap. But her husband's 
allowing his confessor to be privy to an intimacy that was not only his 
but hers as well was more than she could bear. 

"You might as well have told a snake charmer in the market," she said. 
For her it was the end of everything. She was sure that her honor was 
the subject of gossip even before her husband had finished his 
penance, and the feeling of humiliation that this produced in her was 
much less tolerable than the shame and anger and injustice caused by 
his infidelity. And worst of all, damn it: with a black woman. He 
corrected her: "With a mulatta." But by then it was too late for 
accuracy: she had finished. 

"Just as bad," she said, "and only now I understand: it was the smell of 
a black woman." 

This happened on a Monday. On Friday at seven o'clock in the evening, 
Fermina Daza sailed away on the regular boat to San J uan de la 
Cienaga with only one trunk, in the company of her goddaughter, her 
face covered by a mantilla to avoid questions for herself and her 
husband. Dr. J uvenal Urbino was not at the dock, by mutual 
agreement, following an exhausting three-day discussion in which they 
decided that she should go to Cousin Hildebranda Sanchez's ranch in 
Flores de Maria for as long a time as she needed to think before 
coming to a final decision. Without knowing her reasons, the children 
understood it as a trip she had often put off and that they themselves 
had wanted her to make for a long time. Dr. Urbino arranged matters 
so that no one in his perfidious circle could engage in malicious 
speculation, and he did it so well that if Florentino Ariza could find no 
clue to Fermina Daza's disappearance it was because in fact there was 
none, not because he lacked the means to investigate. Her husband 



had no doubts that she would come home as soon as she got over her 
rage. But she left certain that her rage would never end. 
However, she was going to learn very soon that her drastic decision 
was not so much the fruit of resentment as of nostalgia. After their 
honeymoon she had returned several times to Europe, despite the ten 
days at sea, and she had always made the trip with more than enough 
time to enjoy it. She knew the world, she had learned to live and think 
in new ways, but she had never gone back to San J uan de la Cienaga 
after the aborted flight in the balloon. To her mind there was an 
element of redemption in the return to Cousin Hildebranda's province, 
no matter how belated. This was not her response to her marital 
catastrophe: the idea was much older than that. So the mere thought 
of revisiting her adolescent haunts consoled her in her unhappiness. 
When she disembarked with her goddaughter in San Juan de la 
Cienaga, she called on the great reserves of her character and 
recognized the town despite all the evidence to the contrary. The Civil 
and Military Commander of the city, who had been advised of her 
arrival, invited her for a drive in the official Victoria while the train 
was preparing to leave for San Pedro Alejandrino, which she wanted to 
visit in order to see for herself if what they said was true, that the bed 
in which The Liberator had died was as small as a child's. Then 
Fermina Daza saw her town again in the somnolence of two o'clock in 
the afternoon. She saw the streets that seemed more like beaches with 
scum-covered pools, and she saw the mansions of the Portuguese, with 
their coats of arms carved over the entrance and bronze jalousies at 
the windows, where the same hesitant, sad piano exercises that her 
recently married mother had taught to the daughters of the wealthy 
houses were repeated without mercy in the gloom of the salons. She 



saw the deserted plaza, with no trees growing in the burning lumps of 
sodium nitrate, the line of carriages with their funereal tops and their 
horses asleep where they stood, the yellow train to San Pedro 
Alejandrino, and on the corner next to the largest church she saw the 
biggest and most beautiful of the houses, with an arcaded passageway 
of greenish stone, and its great monastery door, and the window of the 
bedroom where Alvaro would be born many years later when she no 
longer had the memory to remember it. She thought of Aunt 
Escolastica, for whom she continued her hopeless search in heaven and 
on earth, and thinking of her, she found herself thinking of Florentino 
Ariza with his literary clothes and his book of poems under the almond 
trees in the little park, as she did on rare occasions when she recalled 
her unpleasant days at the Academy. She drove around and around, 
but she could not recognize the old family house, for where she 
supposed it to be she found only a pigsty, and around the corner was a 
street lined with brothels where whores from all over the world took 
their siestas in the doorways in case there was something for them in 
the mail. It was not the same town. 

When they began their drive, Fermina Daza had covered the lower half 
of her face with her mantilla, not for fear of being recognized in a 
place where no one could know her but because of the dead bodies she 
saw everywhere, from the railroad station to the cemetery, bloating in 
the sun. The Civil and Military Commander of the city told her: "It's 
cholera." She knew it was, because she had seen the white lumps in 
the mouths of the sweltering corpses, but she noted that none of them 
had the coup de grace in the back of the neck as they had at the time 
of the balloon. 
"That is true," said the officer. "Even God improves His methods." 



The distance from San J uan de la Cienaga to the old plantation of San 
Pedro Alejandrino was only nine leagues, but the yellow train took the 
entire day to make the trip because the engineer was a friend of the 
regular passengers, who were always asking him to please stop so 
they could stretch their legs by strolling across the golf courses of the 
banana company, and the men bathed naked in the clear cold rivers 
that rushed down from the mountains, and when they were hungry 
they got off the train to milk the cows wandering in the pastures. 
Fermina Daza was terrified when they reached their destination, and 
she just had time to marvel at the Homeric tamarinds where The 
Liberator had hung his dying man's hammock and to confirm that the 
bed where he had died, just as they had said, was small not only for so 
glorious a man but even for a sevenmonth-old infant. Another visitor, 
however, who seemed very well informed, said that the bed was a 
false relic, for the truth was that the father of his country had been left 
to die on the floor. Fermina Daza was so depressed by what she had 
seen and heard since she left her house that for the rest of the trip she 
took no pleasure in the memory of her earlier trip, as she had longed 
to do, but instead she avoided passing through the villages of her 
nostalgia. In this way she could still keep them, and keep herself from 
disillusionment. She heard the accordions in her detours around 
disenchantment, she heard the shouts from the cockfighting pits, the 
bursts of gunfire that could just as well signal war as revelry, and when 
she had no other recourse and had to pass through a village, she 
covered her face with her mantilla so that she could remember it as it 
once had been. 

One night, after so much avoidance of the past, she arrived at Cousin 
Hildebranda's ranch, and when she saw her waiting at the door she 



almost fainted: it was as if she were seeing herself in the mirror of 
truth. She was fat and old, burdened with unruly children whose father 
was not the man she still loved without hope but a soldier living on his 
pension whom she had married out of spite and who loved her to 
distraction. But she was still the same person inside her ruined body. 
Fermina Daza recovered from her shock after just a few days of 
country living and pleasant memories, but she did not leave the ranch 
except to go to Mass on Sundays with the grandchildren of her 
wayward conspirators of long ago, cowboys on magnificent horses and 
beautiful, well-dressed girls who were just like their mothers at their 
age and who rode standing in oxcarts and singing in chorus until they 
reached the mission church at the end of the valley. She only passed 
through the village of Flores de Maria, where she had not gone on her 
earlier trip because she had not thought she would like it, but when 
she saw it she was fascinated. Her misfortune, or the village's, was 
that she could never remember it afterward as it was in reality, but 
only as she had imagined it before she had been there. 
Dr. J uvenal Urbino made the decision to come for her after receiving a 
report from the Bishop of Riohacha, who had concluded that his wife's 
long stay was caused not by her unwillingness to return but by her 
inability to find a way around her pride. So he went without notifying 
her after an exchange of letters with Hildebranda, in which it was 
made clear that his wife was filled with nostalgia: now she thought 
only of home. At eleven o'clock in the morning, Fermina Daza was in 
the kitchen preparing stuffed eggplant when she heard the shouts of 
the peons, the neighing of the horses, the shooting of guns into the air, 
then the resolute steps in the courtyard and the man's voice: 
"It is better to arrive in time than to be invited." 



She thought she would die ofjoy. Without time to think about it, she 
washed her hands as well as she could while she murmured: "Thank 
you, God, thank you, how good you are," thinking that she had not yet 
bathed because of the damned eggplant that Hildebranda had asked 
her to prepare without telling her who was coming to lunch, thinking 
that she looked so old and ugly and that her face was so raw from the 
sun that he would regret having come when he saw her like this, damn 
it. But she dried her hands the best she could on her apron, arranged 
her appearance the best she could, called on all the haughtiness she 
had been born with to calm her maddened heart, and went to meet the 
man with her sweet doe's gait, her head high, her eyes shining, her 
nose ready for battle, and grateful to her fate for the immense relief 
of going home, but not as pliant as he thought, of course, because she 
would be happy to leave with him, of course, but she was also 
determined to make him pay with her silence for the bitter suffering 
that had ended her life. 

Almost two years after the disappearance of Fermina Daza, an 
impossible coincidence occurred, the sort that Transito Ariza would 
have characterized as one of God's jokes. Florentino Ariza had not 
been impressed in any special way by the invention of moving 
pictures, but Leona Cassiani took him, unresisting, to the spectacular 
opening of Cabiria, whose reputation was based on the dialogues 
written by the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. The great open-air patio of 
Don Galileo Daconte, where on some nights one enjoyed the splendor 
of the stars more than the silent lovemaking on the screen, was filled 
to overflowing with a select public. Leona Cassiani followed the 
wandering plot with her heart in her mouth. Florentino Ariza, on the 
other hand, was nodding his head in sleep because of the 



overwhelming tedium of the drama. At his back, a woman's voice 
seemed to read his thoughts: 
"My God, this is longer than sorrow!" 

That was all she said, inhibited perhaps by the resonance of her voice 
in the darkness, for the custom of embellishing silent films with piano 
accompaniment had not yet been established here, and in the 
darkened enclosure all that one could hear was the projector 
murmuring like rain. Florentino Ariza did not think of God except in the 
most extreme circumstances, but now he thanked Him with all his 
heart. For even twenty fathoms underground he would instantly have 
recognized the husky voice he had carried in his soul ever since the 
afternoon when he heard her say in a swirl of yellow leaves in a 
solitary park: "Now go, and don't come back until I tell you to." He 
knew that she was sitting in the seat behind his, next to her inevitable 
husband, and he could detect her warm, even breathing, and he 
inhaled with love the air purified by the health of her breath. Instead 
of imagining her under attack by the devouring worms of death, as he 
had in his despondency of recent months, he recalled her at a radiant 
and joyful age, her belly rounded under the Minervan tunic with the 
seed of her first child. I n utter detachment from the historical disasters 
that were crowding the screen, he did not need to turn around to see 
her in his imagination. He delighted in the scent of almonds that came 
wafting back to him from his innermost being, and he longed to know 
how she thought women in films should fall in love so that their loves 
would cause less pain than they did in life. Just before the film ended, 
he realized in a flash of exultation that he had never been so close, so 
long, to the one he loved so much. 
When the lights went on, he waited for the others to stand up. Then he 



stood, unhurried, and turned around in a distracted way as he buttoned 
his vest that he always opened during a performance, and the four of 
them found themselves so close to one another that they would have 
been obliged to exchange greetings even if one of them had not 
wanted to. First Juvenal Urbino greeted Leona Cassiani, whom he knew 
well, and then he shook Florentino Ariza's hand with his customary 
gallantry. Fermina Daza smiled at both of them with courtesy, only 
courtesy, but in any event with the smile of someone who had seen 
them often, who knew who they were, and who therefore did not need 
an introduction. Leona Cassiani responded with her mulatta grace. But 
Florentino Ariza did not know what to do, because he was 
flabbergasted at the sight of her. 

She was another person. There was no sign in her face of the terrible 
disease that was in fashion, or of any other illness, and her body had 
kept the proportion and slenderness of her better days, but it was 
evident that the last two years had been as hard on her as ten difficult 
ones. Her short hair was becoming, with a curved wing on each cheek, 
but it was the color of aluminum, not honey, and behind her 
grandmother's spectacles her beautiful lanceolate eyes had lost half a 
lifetime of light. Florentino Ariza saw her move away from her 
husband's arm in the crowd that was leaving the theater, and he was 
surprised that she was in a public place wearing a poor woman's 
mantilla and house slippers. But what moved him most was that her 
husband had to take her arm to help her at the exit, and even then 
she miscalculated the height of the step and almost tripped on the 
stairs at the door. 

Florentino Ariza was very sensitive to the faltering steps of age. Even 
as a young man he would interrupt his reading of poetry in the park to 



observe elderly couples who helped each other across the street, and 
they were lessons in life that had aided him in detecting the laws of his 
own aging. At Dr. J uvenal Urbino's time of life, that night at the film, 
men blossomed in a kind of autumnal youth, they seemed more 
dignified with their first gray hairs, they became witty and seductive, 
above all in the eyes of young women, while their withered wives had 
to clutch at their arms so as not to trip over their own 
shadows. A few years later, however, the husbands fell without 
warning down the precipice of a humiliating aging in body and soul, 
and then it was their wives who recovered and had to lead them by the 
arm as if they were blind men on charity, whispering in their ear, in 
order not to wound their masculine pride, that they should be careful, 
that there were three steps, not two, that there was a puddle in the 
middle of the street, that the shape lying across the sidewalk was a 
dead beggar, and with great difficulty helped them to cross the street 
as if it were the only ford across the last of life's rivers. Florentino 
Ariza had seen himself reflected so often in that mirror that he was 
never as afraid of death as he was of reaching that humiliating age 
when he would have to be led on a woman's arm. On that day, and 
only on that day, he knew he would have to renounce his hope of 
Fermina Daza. 

The meeting frightened away sleep. Instead of driving Leona Cassiani 
in the carriage, he walked with her through the old city, where their 
footsteps echoed like horses' hooves on the cobblestones. From time to 
time, fragments of fugitive voices escaped through the open balconies, 
bedroom confidences, sobs of love magnified by phantasmal acoustics 
and the hot fragrance of jasmine in the narrow, sleeping streets. Once 
again Florentino Ariza had to summon all his strength not to reveal to 



Leona Cassiani his repressed love for Fermina Daza. They walked 
together with measured steps, loving each other like unhurried old 
sweethearts, she thinking about the charms of Cabiria and he thinking 
about his own misfortune. A man was singing on a balcony in the Plaza 
of the Customhouse, and his song was repeated throughout the area in 
a chain of echoes: When I was sailing across the immense waves of 
the sea. On Saints of Stone Street, just when he should have said good 
night at her door, Florentino Ariza asked Leona Cassiani to invite him 
in for a brandy. It was the second time he had made such a request to 
her under comparable circumstances. The first time, ten years before, 
she had said to him: "If you come in at this hour you will have to stay 
forever." He did not go in. But he would do so now, even if he had to 
break his word afterward. Nevertheless, Leona Cassiani invited him in 
and asked for no promises. 

That was how he found himself, when he least expected it, in the 
sanctuary of a love that had been extinguished before it was born. Her 
parents had died, her only brother had made his fortune in Curagao, 
and she was living alone in the old family house. Years before, when 
he had still not renounced the hope of making her his lover, with the 
consent of her parents Florentino Ariza would visit her on Sundays, and 
sometimes until very late at night, and he had contributed so much to 
the household that he came to consider it his own. But that night after 
the film he had the feeling that his memory had been erased from the 
drawing room. The furniture had been moved, there were new prints 
hanging on the walls, and he thought that so many heartless changes 
had been made in order to perpetuate the certainty that he had never 
lived. The cat did not recognize him. Dismayed by the cruelty of 
oblivion, he said: "He does not remember me anymore." But she 



replied over her shoulder, as she was fixing the brandies, that if he 
was bothered by that he could rest easy, because cats do not 
remember anyone. 

Leaning back as they sat close together on the sofa, they spoke about 
themselves, about what they had been before they met one afternoon 
who knows how long ago on the muledrawn trolley. Their lives were 
spent in adjacent offices, and until now they had never spoken of 
anything except their daily work. As they talked, Florentino Ariza put 
his hand on her thigh, he began to caress her with the gentle touch of 
an experienced seducer, and she did not stop him, but she did not 
respond either, not even with a shudder for courtesy's sake. Only when 
he tried to go further did she grasp his exploratory hand and kiss him 
on the palm. 

"Behave yourself," she said. "I realized a long time ago that you are 
not the man I am looking for." 

While she was still very young, a strong, able man whose face she 
never saw took her by surprise, threw her down on the jetty, ripped 
her clothes off, and made instantaneous and frenetic love to her. Lying 
there on the rocks, her body covered with cuts and bruises, she had 
wanted that man to stay forever so that she could die of love in his 
arms. She had not seen his face, she had not heard his voice, but she 
was sure she would have known him in a crowd of a thousand men 
because of his shape and size and his way of making love. From that 
time on, she would say to anyone who would listen to her: "If you ever 
hear of a big, strong fellow who raped a poor black girl from the street 
on Drowned Men's Jetty, one October fifteenth at about half-past 
eleven at night, tell him where he can find me." She said it out of 
habit, and she had said it to so many people that she no longer had 



any hope. Florentine) Ariza had heard the story as many times as he 
had heard a boat sailing away in the night. By two o'clock in the 
morning they had each drunk three brandies and he knew, in truth, 
that he was not the man she was waiting for, and he was glad to know 
it. 

"Bravo, lionlady," he said when he left. "We have killed the tiger." 
It was not the only thing that came to an end that night. The evil lie 
about the pavilion of consumptives had ruined his sleep, for it had 
instilled in him the inconceivable idea that Fermina Daza was mortal 
and as a consequence might die before her husband. But when he saw 
her stumble at the door of the movie theater, by his own volition he 
took another step toward the abyss with the sudden realization that he, 
and not she, might be the one to die first. It was the most fearful kind 
of presentiment, because it was based on reality. The years of 
immobilized waiting, of hoping for good luck, were behind him, but on 
the horizon he could see nothing more than the unfathomable sea of 
imaginary illnesses, the drop-by-drop urinations of sleepless nights, 
the daily death at twilight. He thought that all the moments in the day, 
which had once been his allies and sworn accomplices, were beginning 
to conspire against him. A few years before he had gone to a 
dangerous assignation, his heart heavy with terror of what might 
happen, and he had found the door unlocked and the hinges recently 
oiled so that he could come in without a sound, but he repented at the 
last moment for fear of causing a decent married woman irreparable 
harm by dying in her bed. So that it was reasonable to think that the 
woman he loved most on earth, the one he had waited for from one 
century to the next without a sigh of disenchantment, might not have 
the opportunity to lead him by the arm across a street full of lunar 



grave mounds and beds of windblown poppies in order to help him 

reach the other side of death in safety. 

The truth is that by the standards of his time, Florentino Ariza had 

crossed the line into old age. He was fifty-six well-preserved years old, 

and he thought them well lived because they were years of love. But 

no man of the time would have braved the ridicule of looking young at 

his age, even if he did or thought he did, and none would have dared 

to confess without shame that he still wept in secret over a rebuff 

received in the previous century. It was a bad time for being young: 

there was a style of dress for each age, but the style of old age began 

soon after adolescence, and lasted until the grave. More than age, it 

was a matter of social dignity. The young men dressed like their 
grandfathers, they made themselves more respectable with premature 
spectacles, and a walking stick was looked upon with favor after the 
age of thirty. For women there were only two ages: the age for 
marrying, which did not go past twenty-two, and the age for being 
eternal spinsters: the ones left behind. The others, the married 
women, the mothers, the widows, the grandmothers, were a race apart 
who tallied their age not in relation to the number of years they had 
lived but in relation to the time left to them before they died. 
Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, faced the insidious snares of old 

age with savage temerity, even though he knew that his peculiar fate 

had been to look like an old man from the time he was a boy. At first 

it was a matter of necessity. Transito Ariza pulled apart and then 

sewed together again for him the clothes that his father decided to 

discard, so that he went to primary school wearing frock coats that 

dragged on the ground when he sat down, and ministerial hats that 

came down over his ears despite the cotton batting on the inside to 

make them smaller. Since he had also worn glasses for myopia from 



the age of five, and had his mother's Indian hair, as bristly and coarse 
as horsehair, his appearance clarified nothing. It was fortunate that 
after so much governmental instability because of so many 
superimposed civil wars, academic standards were less selective than 
they had been, and there was a jumble of backgrounds and social 
positions in the public schools. Half-grown children would come to class 
from the barricades, smelling of gunpowder, wearing the insignias and 
uniforms of rebel officers captured at gunpoint in inconclusive battles, 
and carrying their regulation weapons in full view at their waists. They 
shot each other over disagreements in the playground, they threatened 
the teachers if they received low grades on examinations, and one of 
them, a third-year student at La Salle Academy and a retired colonel 
in the militia, shot and killed Brother J uan Eremita, Prefect of the 
Community, because he said in catechism class that God was a 
full-fledged member of the Conservative Party. 

On the other hand, the sons of the great ruined families were dressed 
like old-fashioned princes, and some very poor boys went barefoot. 
Among so many oddities originating in so many places, Florentino 
Ariza was certainly among the oddest, but not to the point of attracting 
undue attention. The harshest thing he heard was when someone 
shouted to him on the street: "When you're ugly and poor, you can 
only want more." In any event, the apparel imposed by necessity 
became, from that time on and for the rest of his life, the kind best 
suited to his enigmatic nature and solemn character. When he was 
promoted to his first important position in the R.C.C., he had clothes 
made to order in the same style as those of his father, whom he 
recalled as an old man who had died at Christ's venerable age of 
thirty-three. So that Florentino Ariza always looked much older than he 



was. As a matter of fact, the loose-tongued Brigida Zuleta, a brief love 
who dished up unwashed truths, told him on the very first day that she 
liked him better without his clothes because he looked twenty years 
younger when he was naked. However, he never knew how to remedy 
that, first because his personal taste would not allow him to dress in 
any other way, and second because at the age of twenty no one knew 
how to dress like a younger man, unless he were to take his short 
pants and sailor hat out of the closet again. On the other hand, he 
himself could not escape the notion of old age current in his day, so it 
was to be expected that when he saw Fermina Daza stumble at the 
door of the movie theater he would be shaken by a thunderbolt of 
panic that death, the son of a bitch, would win an irreparable victory in 
his fierce war of love. 

Until that time his greatest battle, fought tooth and nail and lost 
without glory, was against baldness. From the moment he saw the first 
hairs tangled in his comb, he knew that he was condemned to a hell 
whose torments cannot be imagined by those who do not suffer them. 
He struggled for years. There was not a pomade or lotion he did not 
try, a belief he did not accept, a sacrifice he did not endure, in order to 
defend every inch of his head against the ravages of that devastation. 
He memorized the agricultural information in the Bristol Almanac 
because he had heard that there was a direct relationship between the 
growth of hair and the harvesting cycles. He left the totally bald barber 
he had used all his life for a foreign newcomer who cut hair only when 
the moon was in the first quarter. The new barber had begun to 
demonstrate that in fact he had a fertile hand, when it was discovered 
that he was wanted by several Antillean police forces for raping 
novices, and he was taken away in chains. 



By then Florentine) Ariza had cut out every advertisement concerning 
baldness that he found in the newspapers of the Caribbean basin, the 
ones in which they printed two pictures of the same man, first as bald 
as a melon and then with more hair than a lion: before and after using 
the infallible cure. After six years he had tried one hundred 
seventy-two of them, in addition to complementary treatments that 
appeared on the labels of the bottles, and all that he achieved was an 
itching, foul-smelling eczema of the scalp called ringworm borealis by 
the medicine men of Martinique because it emitted a phosphorescent 
glow in the dark. As a last resort he had recourse to all the herbs that 
the Indians hawked in the public market and to all the magical 
specifics and Oriental potions sold in the Arcade of the Scribes, but by 
the time he realized that he had been swindled, he already had the 
tonsure of a saint. I n the year 1900, while the Civil War of a Thousand 
Days bled the country, an Italian who made custom-fitted wigs of 
human hair came to the city. The wigs cost a fortune, and the 
manufacturer took no responsibility after three months of use, but 
there were few solvent bald men who did not succumb to the 
temptation. Florentino Ariza was one of the first. He tried on a wig that 
was so similar to his own hair that he was afraid it would stand on end 
with his changes in mood, but he could not accept the idea of wearing 
a dead man's hair on his head. His only consolation was that his raging 
baldness meant that he would not have to watch his hair turn gray. 
One day, one of the genial drunks on the river docks embraced him 
with more enthusiasm than usual when he saw him leave the office, 
and then he removed Florentino Ariza's hat, to the mocking laughter of 
the stevedores, and gave him a resounding kiss on the head. "Hairless 
wonder!" he shouted. 



That night, at the age of forty-eight, he had the few downy strands left 
at his temples and the nape of his neck cut off, and he embraced with 
all his heart his destiny of total baldness. Every morning before his 
bath he lathered not only his chin but the areas on his scalp where 
stubble was beginning to reappear, and with a barber's razor he left 
everything as smooth as a baby's bottom. Until then he would not 
remove his hat even in the office, for his baldness produced a 
sensation of nakedness that seemed indecent to him. But when he 
accepted his baldness with all his heart, he attributed to it the 
masculine virtues that he had heard about and scorned as nothing but 
the fantasies of bald men. Later he took refuge in the new custom of 
combing long hairs from his part on the right all the way across his 
head, and this he never abandoned. But even so, he continued to wear 
his hat, always the same funereal style, even after the tartarita, the 
local name for the straw skimmer, came into fashion. 
The loss of his teeth, on the other hand, did not result from a natural 
calamity but from the shoddy work of an itinerant dentist who decided 
to eradicate a simple infection by drastic means. His terror of the drill 
had prevented Florentino Ariza from visiting a dentist, despite his 
constant toothaches, until the pain became unbearable. His mother was 
alarmed by a night of inconsolable moaning from the room next to 
hers, because these moans seemed to be the same as the ones from 
another time, which had almost disappeared in the mists of her 
memory, but when she made him open his mouth to see where love 
was hurting him, she discovered that he had fallen victim to abscesses. 
Uncle Leo XI I sent him to Dr. Francis Adonay, a black giant in gaiters 
and jodhpurs who traveled the river boats with complete dental 
equipment that he carried in a steward's saddlebag, and who seemed 



to be more like a traveling salesman of terror in the villages along the 
river. With just one glance in his mouth, he decided that Florentino 
Ariza had to have even his healthy teeth and molars extracted in order 
to protect him once and for all from further misfortunes. I n contrast to 
baldness, this radical treatment caused him no alarm at all, except for 
his natural fear of a bloodbath without anesthesia. The idea of false 
teeth did not disturb him either, first because one of his fondest 
childhood memories was of a carnival magician who removed his 
upper and lower teeth and left them chattering by themselves on a 
table, and second because it would end the toothaches that had 
tormented him, ever since he was a boy, with almost as much cruelty 
as the pains of love. Unlike baldness, it did not seem to him an 
underhanded attack by old age, because he was convinced that despite 
the bitter breath of vulcanized rubber, his appearance would be 
cleaner with an orthopedic smile. So he submitted without resistance to 
the red-hot forceps of Dr. Adonay, and he endured his convalescence 
with the stoicism of a pack mule. 

Uncle Leo XI I attended to the details of the operation as if it were 
being performed on his own flesh. His singular interest in false teeth 
had developed on one of his first trips along the Magdalena River and 
was the result of his maniacal love for bel canto. One night when the 
moon was full, at the entrance to the port of Gamarra, he made a 
wager with a German surveyor that he could awaken the creatures of 
the jungle by singing a Neapolitan romanza from the Captain's 
balustrade. He almost lost the bet. In the river darkness one could 
hear the flapping wings of the cranes in the marshes, the thudding tails 
of the alligators, the terror of the shad as they tried to leap onto dry 
land, but on the final note, when it was feared that the singer would 



burst his arteries with the power of his song, his false teeth dropped 
out of his mouth with his last breath and fell into the water. 
The boat had to wait three days at the port of Tenerife while an 
emergency set was made for him. It was a perfect fit. But on the 
voyage home, trying to explain to the Captain how he had lost the first 
pair, Uncle Leo XI I filled his lungs with the burning air of the jungle, 
sang the highest note he could, held it to his last breath as he tried to 
frighten the alligators that were sunning themselves and watching the 
passage of the boat with unblinking eyes, and the new set of false 
teeth sank into the current as well. From then on, he kept spare sets of 
teeth everywhere, in various places throughout his house, in his desk 
drawer, and on each of the three company boats. Moreover, when he 
ate out he would carry an extra pair in a cough drop box that he kept 
in his pocket, because he had once broken a pair trying to eat pork 
cracklings at a picnic. Fearing that his nephew might be the victim of 
similar unpleasant surprises, Uncle Leo XI I told Dr. Adonay to make 
him two sets right from the start: one of cheap materials for daily use 
at the office, and the other for Sundays and holidays, with a gold chip 
in the first molar that would impart a touch of realism. At last, on a 
Palm Sunday ringing with the sound of holiday bells, Florentino Ariza 
returned to the street with a new identity, his perfect smile giving him 
the impression that someone else had taken his place in the world. 
This was at the time that his mother died and Florentino Ariza was left 
alone in his house. It was a haven that suited his way of loving, 
because the location was discreet despite the fact that the numerous 
windows that gave the street its name made one think of too many 
eyes behind the curtains. But the house had been built to make 
Fermina Daza, and no one but Fermina Daza, happy, so that Florentino 



Ariza preferred to lose a good many opportunities during his most 
fruitful years rather than soil his house with other loves. To his good 
fortune, every step he climbed in the R.C.C. brought new privileges, 
above all secret privileges, and one of the most practical was the 
possibility of using the offices at night, or on Sundays or holidays, with 
the complicity of the watchmen. Once, when he was First Vice 
President, he was making emergency love to one of the Sunday girls, 
sitting on a desk chair with her astride him, when the door opened 
without warning. Uncle Leo XII peered in, as if he had walked into the 
wrong office, and stared at his terrified nephew over his eyeglasses. 
"I'll be damned!" said his uncle, without the least sign of shock. "You 
screw just like your dad!" And before he closed the door, he said, with 
his eyes looking off into the distance: 

"And you, Sehorita, feel free to carry on. I swear by my honor that I 
have not seen your face." 

The matter was not mentioned again, but the following week it was 
impossible to work in Florentino Ariza's office. On Monday the 
electricians burst in to install a rotating fan on the ceiling. The 
locksmiths arrived unannounced and with as much noise as if they 
were going to war, installed a lock on the door so that it could be 
bolted from the inside. The carpenters took measurements without 
saying why, the upholsterers brought swatches of cretonne to see if 
they matched the color of the walls, and the next week an enormous 
double couch covered in a Dionysian flowered print was delivered 
through the window because it was too big for the doors. They worked 
at the oddest hours, with an impertinence that did not seem 
unintentional, and they offered the same response to all his protests: 
"Orders from the head office." Florentino Ariza never knew if this sort 



of interference was a kindness on his uncle's part or a very personal 
way of forcing him to face up to his abusive behavior. The truth never 
occurred to him, which was that Uncle Leo XII was encouraging his 
nephew, because he, too, had heard the rumors that his habits were 
different from those of most men, and this obstacle to naming him as 
his successor had caused him great distress. 

Unlike his brother, Leo XII Loayza had enjoyed a stable marriage of 
sixty years' duration, and he was always proud of not working on 
Sundays. He had four sons and a daughter, and he wanted to prepare 
all of them as heirs to his empire, but by a series of coincidences that 
were common in the novels of the day, but that no one believed in 
real life, his four sons died, one after the other, as they rose to 
positions of authority, and his daughter had no river vocation 
whatsoever and preferred to die watching the boats on the Hudson 
from a window fifty meters high. There were even those who accepted 
as true the tale that Florentino Ariza, with his sinister appearance and 
his vampire's umbrella, had somehow been the cause of all those 
coincidences. 

When doctor's orders forced his uncle into retirement, Florentino Ariza 
began, with good grace, to sacrifice some of his Sunday loves. He 
accompanied his uncle to his country retreat in one of the city's first 
automobiles, whose crank handle had such a powerful recoil that it had 
dislocated the shoulder of the first driver. They talked for many hours, 
the old man in the hammock with his name embroidered in silk thread, 
removed from everything and with his back to the sea, in the old slave 
plantation from whose terraces, filled with crepe myrtle, one could see 
the snow-covered peaks of the sierra in the afternoon. It had always 
been difficult for Florentino Ariza and his uncle to talk about anything 



other than river navigation, and it still was on those slow afternoons 
when death was always an unseen guest. One of Uncle Leo XII 's 
constant preoccupations was that river navigation not pass into the 
hands of entrepreneurs from the interior with connections to European 
corporations. "This has always been a business run by people from the 
coast," he would say. "If the inlanders get hold of it, they will give it 
back to the Germans." His preoccupation was consistent with a political 
conviction that he liked to repeat even when it was not to the point. 
"I am almost one hundred years old, and I have seen everything 
change, even the position of the stars in the universe, but I have not 
seen anything change yet in this country," he would say. "Here they 
make new constitutions, new laws, new wars every three months, but 
we are still in colonial times." 

To his brother Masons, who attributed all evils to the failure of 
federalism, he would always reply: "The War of a Thousand Days was 
lost twenty-three years ago in the war of '76." Florentino Ariza, whose 
indifference to politics hovered on the limits of the absolute, listened 
to these increasingly frequent and tiresome speeches as one listens to 
the sound of the sea. But he was a rigorous debater when it came to 
company policy. I n opposition to his uncle's opinion, he thought that 
the setbacks in river navigation, always on the edge of disaster, could 
be remedied only by a voluntary renunciation of the riverboat 
monopoly that the National Congress had granted to the River 
Company of the Caribbean for ninety-nine years and a day. His uncle 
protested: "My namesake Leona with her worthless anarchist theories 
has put those ideas in your head." But that was only half true. 
Florentino Ariza based his thinking on the experience of the German 
commodore J ohann B. Elbers, whose noble intelligence had been 



destroyed by excessive personal ambition. His uncle, however, 
believed that the failure of Elbers was due not to privileges but to the 
unrealistic commitments he had contracted for, which had almost been 
tantamount to his assuming responsibility for the geography of the 
nation: he had taken charge of maintaining the navigability of the 
river, the port installations, the access routes on land, the means of 
transportation. Besides, he would say, the virulent opposition of 
President Simon Bolivar was no laughing matter. 
Most of his business associates viewed those disputes as if they were 
matrimonial arguments, in which both parties are right. The old man's 
obstinacy seemed natural to them, not because, as it was too easy to 
say, old age had made him less visionary than he had always been, 
but because renouncing the monopoly must have seemed to him like 
throwing away the victories of a historic battle that he and his brothers 
had waged unaided, back in heroic times, against powerful adversaries 
from all over the world. Which is why no one opposed him when he 
kept so tight a hold on his rights that no one could touch them before 
their legal expiration. But suddenly, when Florentino Ariza had already 
surrendered his weapons during those meditative afternoons on the 
plantation, Uncle Leo XII agreed to renounce the centenarian privilege, 
on the one honorable condition that it not take place before his death. 
It was his final act. He did not speak of business again, he did not 
even allow anyone to consult with him, he did not lose a single ringlet 
from his splendid imperial head or an iota of his lucidity, but he did 
everything possible to keep anyone from seeing him who might pity 
him. He passed the days in contemplation of the perpetual snows from 
his terrace, rocking slowly in a Viennese rocker next to a table where 
the servants always kept a pot of black coffee hot for him, along with 



a glass of water with boric acid that contained two plates of false teeth, 
which he no longer used except to receive visitors. He saw very few 
friends, and he would speak only of a past so remote that it antedated 
river navigation. But he still had one new topic of conversation left: his 
desire that Florentino Ariza marry. He expressed his wish to him 
several times, and always in the same way: 
"If I were fifty years younger," he would say, "I would marry my 
namesake Leona. I cannot imagine a better wife." 
Florentino Ariza trembled at the idea of his labor of so many years 
being frustrated at the last moment by this unforeseen circumstance. 
He would have preferred to renounce everything, throw it all away, 
die, rather than fail Fermina Daza. Fortunately, Uncle Leo XII did not 
insist. When he turned ninety-two, he recognized his nephew as sole 
heir and retired from the company. 

Six months later, by unanimous agreement, Florentino Ariza was 
named President of the Board of Directors and General Manager of the 
company. After the champagne toast on the day he took over the post, 
the old lion in retirement excused himself for speaking without getting 
up from the rocker, and he improvised a brief speech that seemed 
more like an elegy. He said that his life had begun and ended with two 
providential events. The first was that The Liberator had carried him in 
his arms in the village of Turbaco when he was making his ill-fated 
journey toward death. The other had been finding, despite all the 
obstacles that destiny had interposed, a successor worthy of the 
company. At last, trying to undramatize the drama, he concluded: 
"The only frustration I carry away from this life is that of singing at so 
many funerals except my own." 
It goes without saying that to close the ceremony he sang the "addio 



alia vita" from Tosca. He sang it a capella, which was the style he 
preferred, in a voice that was still steady. Florentino Ariza was moved, 
but he showed it only in the slight tremor in his voice as he expressed 
his thanks. I n just the same way that he had done and thought 
everything he had done and thought in life, he had scaled the heights 
only because of his fierce determination to be alive and in good health 
at the moment he would fulfill his destiny in the shadow of Fermina 
Daza. 

However, it was not her memory alone that accompanied him to the 
party Leona Cassiani gave for him that night. The memory of them all 
was with him: those who slept in the cemeteries, thinking of him 
through the roses he planted over them, as well as those who still laid 
their heads on the pillow where their husbands slept, their horns 
golden in the moonlight. Deprived of one, he wanted to be with them 
all at the same time, which is what he always wanted whenever he 
was fearful. For even during his most difficult times and at his worst 
moments, he had maintained some link, no matter how weak, with his 
countless lovers of so many years: he always kept track of their lives. 
And so that night he remembered Rosalba, the very first one, who had 
carried off the prize of his virginity and whose memory was still as 
painful as it had been the first day. He had only to close his eyes to 
see her in her muslin dress and her hat with the long silk ribbons, 
rocking her child's cage on the deck of the boat. Several times in the 
course of the numerous years of his life he had been ready to set out 
in search of her, without knowing where, or her last name, or if she 
was the one he was looking for, but certain of finding her somewhere 
among groves of orchids. Each time, because of a real difficulty at the 
last minute or because of an ill-timed failure of his own will, his trip 



was postponed just as they were about to raise the gangplank: always 
for a reason that had something to do with Fermina Daza. 
He remembered the Widow Nazaret, the only one with whom he had 
profaned his mother's house on the Street of Windows, although it had 
been Transito Ariza and not he who had asked her in. He was more 
understanding of her than of any of the others, because she was the 
only one who radiated enough tenderness to compensate for Fermina 
Daza despite her sluggishness in bed. But she had the inclinations of an 
alleycat, which were more indomitable than the strength of her 
tenderness, and this meant that both of them were condemned to 
infidelity. Still, they continued to be intermittent lovers for almost 
thirty years, thanks to their musketeers' motto: Unfaithful but not 
disloyal. She was also the only one for whom Florentino Ariza assumed 
any responsibility: when he heard that she had died and was going to 
a pauper's grave, he buried her at his own expense and was the only 
mourner at the funeral. 

He remembered other widows he had loved. He remembered 
Prudencia Pitre, the oldest of those still alive, who was known to 
everyone as the Widow of Two because she had outlived both her 
husbands. And the other Prudencia, the Widow Arellano, the amorous 
one, who would rip the buttons from his clothes so that he would have 
to stay in her house while she sewed them back on. And Josefa, the 
Widow Zuhiga, mad with love for him, who was ready to cut off his 
penis with gardening shears while he slept, so that he would belong to 
no one else even if he could not belong to her. 

He remembered Angeles Alfaro, the most ephemeral and best loved of 
them all, who came for six months to teach string instruments at the 
Music School and who spent moonlit nights with him on the flat roof of 



her house, as naked as the day she was born, playing the most 
beautiful suites in all music on a cello whose voice became human 
between her golden thighs. From the first moonlit night, both of them 
broke their hearts in the fierce love of inexperience. But Angeles 
Alfaro left as she had come, with her tender sex and her sinner's cello, 
on an ocean liner that flew the flag of oblivion, and all that remained 
of her on the moonlit roofs was a fluttered farewell with a white 
handkerchief like a solitary sad dove on the horizon, as if she were a 
verse from the Poetic Festival. With her Florentino Ariza learned what 
he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one 
can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same 
sorrow with each, and not betray any of them. Alone in the midst of 
the crowd on the pier, he said to himself in a flash of anger: "My heart 
has more rooms than a whorehouse." He wept copious tears at the 
grief of parting. But as soon as the ship had disappeared over the 
horizon, the memory of Fermina Daza once again occupied all his 
space. 

He remembered Andrea Varon, outside whose house he had spent the 
previous week, but the orange light in the bathroom had been a 
warning that he could not go in: someone had arrived before him. 
Someone: man or woman, because Andrea Varon did not hesitate 
over such details when it came to the follies of love. Of all those on 
the list, she was the only one who earned a living with her body, but 
she did so at her pleasure and without a business manager. I n her day 
she had enjoyed a legendary career as a clandestine courtesan who 
deserved her nom de guerre, Our Lady of Everybody. She drove 
governors and admirals mad, she watched eminent heroes of arms and 
letters who were not as illustrious as they believed, and even some 



who were, as they wept on her shoulder. It was true, however, that 
President Rafael Reyes, after only a hurried half hour between 
appointments in the city, granted her a lifetime pension for 
distinguished service to the Ministry of Finance, where she had never 
worked a day of her life. She distributed her gifts of pleasure as far as 
her body could reach, and although her indecent conduct was public 
knowledge, no one could have made a definitive case against her, 
because her eminent accomplices gave her the same protection they 
gave themselves, knowing that they had more to lose in a scandal 
than she did. For her sake Florentino Ariza had violated his sacred 
principle of never paying, and she had violated hers of never doing it 
free of charge, even with her husband. They had agreed upon a 
symbolic fee of one peso, which she did not take and he did not hand 
to her, but which they put in the piggy bank until enough of them had 
accumulated to buy something charming from overseas in the Arcade 
of the Scribes. It was she who attributed a distinctive sensuality to the 
enemas he used for his crises of constipation, who convinced him to 
share them with her, and they took them together in the course of 
their mad afternoons as they tried to create even more love within 
their love. 

He considered it a stroke of good fortune that among so many 
hazardous encounters, the only woman who had made him taste a 
drop of bitterness was the sinuous Sara Noriega, who ended her days 
in the Divine Shepherdess Asylum, reciting senile verses of such 
outrageous obscenity that they were forced to isolate her so that she 
would not drive the rest of the madwomen crazy. However, when he 
took over complete responsibility for the R.C.C., he no longer had 
much time or desire to attempt to replace Fermina Daza with anyone 



else: he knew that she was irreplaceable. Little by little he had fallen 
into the routine of visiting the ones who were already established, 
sleeping with them for as long as they pleased him, for as long as he 
could, for as long as they lived. On the Pentecost Sunday when Juvenal 
Urbino died, he had only one left, only one, who had just turned 
fourteen and had everything that no one else until then had had to 
make him mad with love. 

Her name was America Vicuna. She had arrived two years before from 
the fishing village of Puerto Padre, entrusted by her family to 
Florentino Ariza as her guardian and recognized blood relative. They 
had sent her with a government scholarship to study secondary 
education, with her petate and her little tin trunk as small as a doll's, 
and from the moment she walked off the boat, with her high white 
shoes and her golden braid, he had the awful presentiment that they 
were going to take many Sunday siestas together. She was still a child 
in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of 
elementary school on her knees, but he saw right away the kind of 
woman she was soon going to be, and he cultivated her during a slow 
year of Saturdays at the circus, Sundays in the park with ice cream, 
childish late afternoons, and he won her confidence, he won her 
affection, he led her by the hand, with the gentle astuteness of a kind 
grandfather, toward his secret slaughterhouse. For her it was 
immediate: the doors of heaven opened to her. All at once she burst 
into flower, which left her floating in a limbo of happiness and which 
motivated her studies, for she was always at the head of her class so 
that she would not lose the privilege of going out on weekends. For 
him it was the most sheltered inlet in the cove of his old age. After so 
many years of calculated loves, the mild pleasure of innocence had the 



charm of a restorative perversion. 

They were in full agreement. She behaved like what she was, a girl 
ready to learn about life under the guidance of a venerable old man 
who was not shocked by anything, and he chose to behave like what 
he had most feared being in his life: a senile lover. He never identified 
her with the young Fermina Daza despite a resemblance that was more 
than casual and was not based only on their age, their school uniform, 
their braid, their untamed walk, and even their haughty and 
unpredictable character. Moreover, the idea of replacement, which had 
been so effective an inducement for his mendicancy of love, had been 
completely erased from his mind. He liked her for what she was, and 
he came to love her for what she was, in a fever of crepuscular 
delights. She was the only one with whom he took drastic precautions 
against accidental pregnancy. After half a dozen encounters, there was 
no dream for either of them except their Sunday afternoons. 
Since he was the only person authorized to take her out of the 
boarding school, he would call for her in the six-cylinder Hudson that 
belonged to the R.C.C., and sometimes they would lower the top if the 
afternoon ,was not sunny and drive along the beach, he with his 
somber hat and she, weak with laughter, holding the sailor hat of her 
school uniform with both hands so that the wind would not blow it off. 
Someone had told her not to spend more time with her guardian than 
necessary, not to eat anything he had tasted, and not to put her face 
too close to his, for old age was contagious. But she did not care. They 
were both indifferent to what people might think of them because their 
family kinship was well known, and what is more, the extreme 
difference in their ages placed them beyond all suspicion. 
They had just made love on Pentecost Sunday when the bells began to 



toll at four o'clock. Florentino Ariza had to overcome the wild beating 

of his heart. I n his youth, the ritual of the tolling bells had been 

included in the price of the funeral and was denied only to the 

indigent. But after our last war, just at the turn of the century, the 

Conservative regime consolidated its colonial customs, and funeral 

rites became so expensive that only the wealthiest could pay for them. 

When Archbishop Dante de Luna died, bells all over the province tolled 

unceasingly for nine days and nine nights, and the public suffering was 

so great that his successor reserved the tolling of bells for the funeral 

services of the most illustrious of the dead. Therefore, when Florentino 

Ariza heard the Cathedral bells at four o'clock in the afternoon on a 

Pentecost Sunday, he felt as if he had been visited by a ghost from his 

lost youth. He never imagined they were the bells he had so longed to 

hear for so many years, ever since the Sunday when he saw Fermina 

Daza in her sixth month of pregnancy as she was leaving High Mass. 

"Damn," he said in the darkness. "It must be a very big fish for them 

to ring the Cathedral bells." 

America Vicuna, completely naked, had just awakened. "It must be for 

Pentecost," she said. 

Florentino Ariza was in no way expert in matters pertaining to the 

Church, and he had not gone to Mass again since he had played the 

violin in the choir with a German who also taught him the science of 

the telegraph and about whose fate he had never been able to obtain 

any definite news. But he knew beyond any doubt that the bells were 

not ringing for Pentecost. There was public mourning in the city, that 

was certain, and that is what he knew. A delegation of Caribbean 

refugees had come to his house that morning to inform him that 

Jeremiah de Saint-Amour had been found dead in his photography 



studio. Although Florentino Ariza was not an intimate friend of his, he 
was close to many other refugees who always invited him to their 
public ceremonies, above all to their funerals. But he was sure that the 
bells were not tolling for Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who was a militant 
unbeliever and a committed anarchist and who had, moreover, died by 
his own hand. 

"No," he said, "tolling like that must be for a governor at least." 
America Vicuna, her pale body dappled by the light coming in through 
the carelessly drawn blinds, was not of an age to think about death. 
They had made love after lunch and they were lying together at the 
end of their siesta, both of them naked under the ceiling fan, whose 
humming could not hide the sound like falling hail that the buzzards 
made as they walked across the hot tin roof. Florentino Ariza loved her 
as he had loved so many other casual women in his long life, but he 
loved her with more anguish than any other, because he was certain 
he would be dead by the time she finished secondary school. 
The room resembled a ship's cabin, its walls made of wooden laths 
covered by many coats of paint, as were the walls of boats, but at four 
o'clock in the afternoon, even with the electric fan hanging over the 
bed, the heat was more intense than in the riverboat cabins because it 
reflected off the metal roof. It was not so much a formal bedroom as a 
cabin on dry land, which Florentino Ariza had built behind his office in 
the R.C.C. with no other purpose or pretext than to have a nice little 
refuge for his old man's loves. On ordinary days it was difficult to sleep 
there, with the shouts of the stevedores, and the noise of the cranes 
from the river harbor, and the enormous bellowing of the ships 
moored at the dock. For the girl, however, it was a Sunday paradise. 
They had planned to be together on Pentecost until she had to return 



to school, five minutes before the Angelus, but the tolling of the bells 
reminded Florentino Ariza of his promise to attend the funeral of 
Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, and he dressed with more haste than usual. 
First, as always, he plaited her single braid that he himself had 
loosened before they made love, and he sat her on the table to tie the 
bow on her school shoes, which was something she never did well. He 
helped her without malice, and she helped him to help her, as if it 
were an obligation: after their first encounters they had both lost 
awareness of their ages, and they treated each other with the 
familiarity of a husband and wife who had hidden so many things in 
this life that there was almost nothing left for them to say to each 
other. 

The offices were closed and dark because of the holiday, and at the 
deserted dock there was only one ship, its boilers damped. The sultry 
weather presaged the first rains of the year, but the transparent air 
and the Sunday silence in the harbor seemed to belong to a more 
benevolent month. The world was harsher here than in the shadowy 
cabin, and the bells caused greater grief, even if one did not know for 
whom they tolled. Florentino Ariza and the girl went down to the patio 
of saltpeter, which the Spaniards had used as a port for blacks and 
where there were still the remains of weights and other rusted irons 
from the slave trade. The automobile was waiting for them in the 
shade of the warehouses, and they did not awaken the driver, asleep 
with his head on the steering wheel, until they were settled in their 
seats. The automobile turned around behind the warehouses enclosed 
by chicken wire, crossed the area of the old market on Las Animas 
Bay, where near-naked adults were playing ball, and drove out of the 
river harbor in a burning cloud of dust. Florentino Ariza was sure that 



the funerary honors could not be for J eremiah de Saint-Amour, but the 

insistent tolling filled him with doubts. He put his hand on the driver's 

shoulder and asked him, shouting into his ear, for whom the bells 

tolled. "It's for that doctor with the goatee," said the driver. "What's his 

name?" 

Florentino Ariza did not have to wonder who that was. Nevertheless, 

when the driver told him how he had died, his instantaneous hope 

vanished because he could not believe what he heard. Nothing 

resembles a person as much as the way he dies, and no death could 

resemble the man he was thinking about less than this one. But it was 

he, although it seemed absurd: the oldest and best-qualified doctor in 

the city, and one of its illustrious men for many other meritorious 

reasons, had died of a broken spine, at the age of eightyone, when he 

fell from the branch of a mango tree as he tried to catch a parrot. 

All that Florentino Ariza had done since Fermina Daza's marriage had 
been based on his hope for this event. But now that it had come, he 
did not feel the thrill of triumph he had imagined so often in his 
sleeplessness. Instead, he was seized by terror: the fantastic 
realization that it could just as well have been himself for whom the 
death knell was tolling. Sitting beside him in the automobile that jolted 
along the cobbled streets, America Vicuna was frightened by his pallor, 
and she asked him what was the matter. Florentino Ariza grasped her 
hand with his icy one. 
"Oh, my dear," he sighed, "I would need another fifty years to tell you 

about it." 

He forgot J eremiah de Saint-Amour's funeral. He left the girl at the 

door of the school with a hurried promise that he would come back for 

her the following Saturday, and he told the driver to take him to the 

house of Dr. Juvenal Urbino. He was confronted by an uproar of 



automobiles and hired carriages in the surrounding streets and a 
multitude of curious onlookers outside the house. The guests of Dr. 
Lacides Olivella, who had received the bad news at the height of the 
celebration, came rushing in. It was not easy to move inside the house 
because of the crowd, but Florentino Ariza managed to make his way 
to the master bedroom, peered on tiptoe over the groups of people 
blocking the door, and saw Juvenal Urbino in the conjugal bed as he 
had wanted to see him since he had first heard of him--wallowing in 
the indignity of death. The carpenter had just taken his measurements 
for the coffin, and at his side, still wearing the dress of a newly-wed 
grandmother that she had put on for the party, Fermina Daza was 
introspective and dejected. 

Florentino Ariza had imagined that moment down to the last detail 
since the days of his youth when he had devoted himself completely to 
the cause of his reckless love. For her sake he had won fame and 
fortune without too much concern for his methods, for her sake he had 
cared for his health and personal appearance with a rigor that did not 
seem very manly to other men of his time, and he had waited for this 
day as no one else could have waited for anything or anyone in this 
world: without an instant of discouragement. The proof that death had 
at last interceded on his behalf filled him with the courage he needed 
to repeat his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love to Fermina 
Daza on herfirst night of widowhood. 

He did not deny the accusations of his conscience that it had been a 
thoughtless and inappropriate act, one he had rushed into for fear that 
the opportunity would never be repeated. He would have preferred 
something less brutal, something in the manner he had so often 
imagined, but fate had given him no choice. He left the house of 



mourning, full of sorrow at leaving her in the same state of upheaval 
in which he found himself, but there was nothing he could have done 
to prevent it because he felt that this barbarous night had been forever 
inscribed in both their destinies. 

For the next two weeks he did not sleep through a single night. He 
asked himself in despair where Fermina Daza could be without him, 
what she could be thinking, what she would do, in the years of life 
remaining to her, with the burden of consternation he had left in her 
hands. He suffered a crisis of constipation that swelled his belly like a 
drum, and he had to resort to remedies less pleasant than enemas. 
The complaints of old age, which he endured better than his 
contemporaries because he had known them since his youth, all 
attacked at the same time. On Wednesday he appeared at the office 
after a week at home, and Leona Cassiani was horrified at seeing him 
so pale and enervated. But he reassured her: it was insomnia again, as 
always, and once more he bit his tongue to keep the truth from 
pouring out through the bleeding wounds in his heart. The rain did not 
allow him a moment of sun to think in. He spent another unreal week 
unable to concentrate on anything, eating badly and sleeping worse, 
trying to find the secret signs that would show him the road to 
salvation. But on Friday he was invaded by an unreasoning calm, 
which he interpreted as an omen that nothing new was going to 
happen, that everything he had done in his life had been in vain, that 
he could not go on: it was the end. On Monday, however, when he 
returned to his house on the Street of Windows, he discovered a letter 
floating in a puddle inside the entrance, and on the wet envelope he 
recognized at once the imperious handwriting that so many changes in 
life had not changed, and he even thought he could detect the 



nocturnal perfume of withered gardenias, because after the initial 
shock, his heart told him everything: it was the letter he had been 
waiting for, without a moment's respite, for over half a century. 



CHAPTER SIX 

FERMI NA DAZA could not have imagined that her letter, inspired by 

blind rage, would have been interpreted by Florentino Ariza as a love 

letter. She had put into it all the fury of which she was capable, her 

crudest words, the most wounding, most unjust vilifications, which still 

seemed minuscule to her in light of the enormity of the offense. It was 

the final act in a bitter exorcism through which she was attempting to 

come to terms with her new situation. She wanted to be herself again, 

to recover all that she had been obliged to give up in half a century of 

servitude that had doubtless made her happy but which, once her 

husband was dead, did not leave her even the vestiges of her identity. 

She was a ghost in a strange house that overnight had become 

immense and solitary and through which she wandered without 

purpose, asking herself in anguish which of them was deader: the man 

who had died or the woman he had left behind. 

She could not avoid a profound feeling of rancor toward her husband 
for having left her alone in the middle of the ocean. Everything of his 
made her cry: his pajamas under the pillow, his slippers that had 
always looked to her like an invalid's, the memory of his image in the 
back of the mirror as he undressed while she combed her hair before 
bed, the odor of his skin, which was to linger on hers for a long time 
after his death. She would stop in the middle of whatever she was 
doing and slap herself on the forehead because she suddenly 
remembered something she had forgotten to tell him. At every 
moment countless ordinary questions would come to mind that he 
alone could answer for her. Once he had told her something that she 
could not imagine: that amputees suffer pains, cramps, itches, in the 
leg that is no longer there. That is how she felt without him, feeling his 
presence where he no longer was. 



When she awoke on her first morning as a widow, she turned over in 
bed without opening her eyes, searching for a more comfortable 
position so that she could continue sleeping, and that was the moment 
when he died for her. For only then did it become clear that he had 
spent the night away from home for the first time in years. The other 
place where this struck her was at the table, not because she felt 
alone, which in fact she was, but because of her strange belief that she 
was eating with someone who no longer existed. It was not until her 
daughter Ofelia came from New Orleans with her husband and the 
three girls that she sat at a table again to eat, but instead of the usual 
one, she ordered a smaller, improvised table set up in the corridor. 
Until then she did not take a regular meal. She would walk through the 
kitchen at any hour, whenever she was hungry, and put her fork in the 
pots and eat a little of everything without placing anything on a plate, 
standing in front of the stove, talking to the serving women, who were 
the only ones with whom she felt comfortable, the ones she got along 
with best. Still, no matter how hard she tried, she could not elude the 
presence of her dead husband: wherever she went, wherever she 
turned, no matter what she was doing, she would come across 
something of his that would remind her of him. For even though it 
seemed only decent and right to grieve for him, she also wanted to do 
everything possible not to wallow in her grief. And so she made the 
drastic decision to empty the house of everything that 
would remind her of her dead husband, which was the only way she 
could think of to go on living without him. 

It was a ritual of eradication. Her son agreed to take his library so that 
she could replace his office with the sewing room she had never had 
when she was married. And her daughter would take some furniture 



and countless objects that she thought were just right for the antique 
auctions in New Orleans. All of this was a relief for Fermina Daza, 
although she was not at all amused to learn that the things she had 
bought on her honeymoon were now relics for antiquarians. To the 
silent stupefaction of the servants, the neighbors, the women friends 
who came to visit her during that time, she had a bonfire built in a 
vacant lot behind the house, and there she burned everything that 
reminded her of her husband: the most expensive and elegant clothes 
seen in the city since the last century, the finest shoes, the hats that 
resembled him more than his portraits, the siesta rocking chair from 
which he had arisen for the last time to die, innumerable objects so 
tied to her life that by now they formed part of her identity. She did it 
without the shadow of a doubt, in the full certainty that her husband 
would have approved, and not only for reasons of hygiene. For he had 
often expressed his desire to be cremated and not shut away in the 
seamless dark of a cedar box. His religion would not permit it, of 
course: he had dared to broach the subject with the Archbishop, just in 
case, and his answer had been a categorical no. It was pure illusion, 
because the Church did not permit the existence of crematoriums in 
our cemeteries, not even for the use of religions other than Catholic, 
and the advantage of building them would not have occurred to 
anyone but J uvenal Urbino. Fermina Daza did not forget her husband's 
terror, and even in the confusion of the first hours she remembered to 
order the carpenter to leave a chink where light could come into the 
coffin as a consolation to him. 

I n any event, the holocaust was in vain. I n a very short while Fermina 
Daza realized that the memory of her dead husband was as resistant to 
the fire as it seemed to be to the passage of time. Even worse: after 



the incineration of his clothing, she continued to miss not only the 
many things she had loved in him but also what had most annoyed 
her: the noises he made on arising. That memory helped her to escape 
the mangrove swamps of grief. Above all else, she made the firm 
decision to go on with her life, remembering her husband as if he had 
not died. She knew that waking each morning would continue to be 
difficult, but it would become less and less so. 
At the end of the third week, in fact, she began to see the first light. 
But as it grew larger and brighter, she became aware that there was 
an evil phantom in her life who did not give her a moment's peace. He 
was not the pitiable phantom who had haunted her in the Park of the 
Evangels and whom she had evoked with a certain tenderness after 
she had grown old, but the hateful phantom with his executioner's 
frock coat and his hat held against his chest, whose thoughtless 
impertinence had disturbed her so much that she found it impossible 
not to think about him. Ever since her rejection of him at the age of 
eighteen, she had been convinced that she had left behind a seed of 
hatred in him that could only grow larger with time. She had always 
counted on that hatred, she had felt it in the air when the phantom was 
near, and the mere sight of him had upset and frightened her so that 
she never found a natural way to behave with him. On the night when 
he reiterated his love for her, while the flowers for her dead husband 
were still perfuming the house, she could not believe that his insolence 
was not the first step in God knows what sinister plan for revenge. 
Her persistent memory of him increased her rage. When she awoke 
thinking about him on the day after the funeral, she succeeded in 
removing him from her thoughts by a simple act of will. But the rage 
always returned, and she realized very soon that the desire to forget 



him was the strongest inducement for remembering him. Then, 
overcome by nostalgia, she dared to recall for the first time the 
illusory days of that unreal love. She tried to remember just how the 
little park was then, and the shabby almond trees, and the bench 
where he had loved her, because none of it still existed as it had been 
then. They had changed everything, they had removed the trees with 
their carpet of yellow leaves and replaced the statue of the decapitated 
hero with that of another, who wore his dress uniform but had no 
name or dates or reasons to justify him, and who stood on an 
ostentatious pedestal in which they had installed the electrical controls 
for the district. Her house, sold many years before, had fallen into 
total ruin at the hands of the Provincial Government. It was not easy 
for her to imagine Florentino Ariza as he had been then, much less to 
believe that the taciturn boy, so vulnerable in the rain, was the 
moth-eaten old wreck who had stood in front of her with no 
consideration for her situation, or the slightest respect for her grief, 
and had seared her soul with a flaming insult that still made it difficult 
for her to breathe. 

Cousin Hildebranda Sanchez had come to visit a short while after 
Fermina Daza returned from the ranch in Flores de Maria, where she 
had gone to recuperate from the misfortune of Miss Lynch. Old, fat, 
and contented, she had arrived in the company of her oldest son who, 
like his father, had been a colonel in the army but had been 
repudiated by him because of his contemptible behavior during the 
massacre of the banana workers in San J uan de la Cienaga. The two 
cousins saw each other often and spent endless hours feeling nostalgia 
for the time when they first met. On her last visit, Hildebranda was 
more nostalgic than ever, and very affected by the burden of old age. 



I n order to add even greater poignancy to their memories, she had 
brought her copy of the portrait of them dressed as old-fashioned 
ladies, taken by the Belgian photographer on the afternoon that a 
young J uvenal Urbino had delivered the coup de grace to a willful 
Fermina Daza. Her copy of the photograph had been lost, and 
Hildebranda's was almost invisible, but they could both recognize 
themselves through the mists of disenchantment: young and beautiful 
as they would never be again. 

For Hildebranda it was impossible not to speak of Florentino Ariza, 
because she always identified his fate with her own. She evoked him 
as she evoked the day she had sent her first telegram, and she could 
never erase from her heart the memory of the sad little bird 
condemned to oblivion. For her part, Fermina had often seen him 
without speaking to him, of course, and she could not imagine that he 
had been her first love. She always heard news about him, as sooner 
or later she heard news about anyone of any significance in the city. It 
was said that he had not married because of his unusual habits, but 
she paid no attention to this, in part because she never paid attention 
to rumors, and in part because such things were said in any event 
about men who were above suspicion. On the other hand, it seemed 
strange to her that Florentino Ariza would persist in his mystic attire 
and his rare lotions, and that he would continue to be so enigmatic 
after making his way in life in so spectacular and honorable a manner. 
It was impossible for her to believe he was the same person, and she 
was always surprised when Hildebranda would sigh: "Poor man, how 
he must have suffered!" For she had seen him without grief for a long 
time: a shadow that had been obliterated. 
Nevertheless, on the night she met him in the movie theater just after 



her return from Flores de Maria, something strange occurred in her 
heart. She was not surprised that he was with a woman, and a black 
woman at that. What did surprise her was that he was so well 
preserved, that he behaved with the greatest self-assurance, and it did 
not occur to her that perhaps it was she, not he, who had changed 
after the troubling explosion of Miss Lynch in her private life. From 
then on, and for more than twenty years, she saw him with more 
compassionate eyes. On the night of the vigil for her husband, it not 
only seemed reasonable for him to be there, but she even understood 
it as the natural end of rancor: an act of forgiving and forgetting. That 
was why she was so taken aback by his dramatic reiteration of a love 
that for her had never existed, at an age when Florentino Ariza and 
she could expect nothing more from life. 

The mortal rage of the first shock remained intact after the symbolic 
cremation of her husband, and it grew and spread as she felt herself 
less capable of controlling it. Even worse: the spaces in her mind 
where she managed to appease her memories of the dead man were 
slowly but inexorably being taken over by the field of poppies where 
she had buried her memories of Florentino Ariza. And so she thought 
about him without wanting to, and the more she thought about him the 
angrier she became, and the angrier she became the more she thought 
about him, until it was something so unbearable that her mind could 
no longer contain it. Then she sat down at her dead husband's desk 
and wrote Florentino Ariza a letter consisting of three irrational pages 
so full of insults and base provocations that it brought her the 
consolation of consciously committing the vilest act of her long life. 
Those weeks had been agonizing for Florentino Ariza as well. The night 
he reiterated his love to Fermina Daza he had wandered aimlessly 



through streets that had been devastated by the afternoon flood, 
asking himself in terror what he was going to do with the skin of the 
tiger he had just killed after having resisted its attacks for more than 
half a century. The city was in a state of emergency because of the 
violent rains. In some houses, half-naked men and women were trying 
to salvage whatever God willed from the flood, and Florentino Ariza 
had the impression that everyone's calamity had something to do with 
his own. But the wind was calm and the stars of the Caribbean were 
quiet in their places. I n the sudden silence of other voices, Florentino 
Ariza recognized the voice of the man whom Leona Cassiani and he 
had heard singing many years before, at the same hour and on the 
same corner: I came backfrom the bridge bathed in tears. A song that 
in some way, on that night, for him alone, had something to do with 
death. 

He needed Transito Ariza then as he never had before, he needed her 
wise words, her head of a mock queen adorned with paper flowers. He 
could not avoid it: whenever he found himself on the edge of 
catastrophe, he needed the help of a woman. So that he passed by the 
Normal School, seeking out those who were within reach, and he saw a 
light in the long row of windows in America Vicuna's dormitory. He had 
to make a great effort not to fall into the grandfather's madness of 
carrying her off at two o'clock in the morning, warm with sleep in her 
swaddling clothes and still smelling of the cradle's tantrums. 
At the other end of the city was Leona Cassiani, alone and free and 
doubtless ready to provide him with the compassion he needed at two 
o'clock in the morning, at three o'clock, at any hour and under any 
circumstances. It would not be the first time he had knocked at her 
door in the wasteland of his sleepless nights, but he knew that she was 



too intelligent, and that they loved each other too much, for him to 
come crying to her lap and not tell her the reason. After a good deal of 
thought as he sleepwalked through the deserted city, it occurred to him 
that he could do no better than Prudencia Pitre, the Widow of Two, who 
was younger than he. They had first met in the last century, and if 
they stopped meeting it was because she refused to allow anyone to 
see her as she was, half blind and verging on decrepitude. As soon as 
he thought of her, Florentino Ariza returned to the Street of the 
Windows, put two bottles of port and a jar of pickles in a shopping bag, 
and went to visit her, not even knowing if she was still in her old 
house, if she was alone, or if she was alive. 

Prudencia Pitre had not forgotten his scratching signal at the door, the 
one he had used to identify himself when they thought they were still 
young although they no longer were, and she opened the door without 
any questions. The street was dark, he was barely visible in his black 
suit, his stiff hat, and his bat's umbrella hanging over his arm, and her 
eyes were too weak to see him except in full light, but she recognized 
him by the gleam of the streetlamp on the metal frame of his 
eyeglasses. He looked like a murderer with blood still on his hands. 
"Sanctuary for a poor orphan," he said. 

It was the only thing he could think of to say, just to say something. 
He was surprised at how much she had aged since the last time he saw 
her, and he was aware that she saw him the same way. But he 
consoled himself by thinking that in a moment, when they had both 
recovered from the initial shock, they would notice fewer and fewer of 
the blows that life had dealt the other, and they would again seem as 
young as they had been when they first met. 
"You look as if you are going to a funeral," she said. 



It was true. She, along with almost the entire city, had been at the 
window since eleven o'clock, watching the largest and most sumptuous 
funeral procession that had been seen here since the death of 
Archbishop De Luna. She had been awakened from her siesta by the 
thundering artillery that made the earth tremble, by the dissonances of 
the marching bands, the confusion of funeral hymns over the 
clamoring bells in all the churches, which had been ringing without 
pause since the previous day. From her balcony she had seen the 
cavalry in dress uniform, the religious communities, the schools, the 
long black limousines of an invisible officialdom, the carriage drawn by 
horses in feathered headdresses and gold trappings, the flag-draped 
yellow coffin on the gun carriage of a historic cannon, and at the very 
end a line of old open Victorias that kept themselves alive in order to 
carry funeral wreaths. As soon as they had passed by Prudencia Pitre's 
balcony, a little after midday, the deluge came and the funeral 
procession dispersed in a wild stampede. 
"What an absurd way to die," she said. 

"Death has no sense of the ridiculous," he said, and added in sorrow: 
"above all at our age." 

They were seated on the terrace, facing the open sea, looking at the 
ringed moon that took up half the sky, looking at the colored lights of 
the boats along the horizon, enjoying the mild, perfumed breeze after 
the storm. They drank port and ate pickles on slices of country bread 
that Prudencia Pitre cut from a loaf in the kitchen. They had spent 
many nights like this after she had been left a widow without children. 
Florentino Ariza had met her at a time when she would have received 
any man who wanted to be with her, 
even if he were hired by the hour, and they had established a 



relationship that was more serious and longer-lived than would have 
seemed possible. 

Although she never even hinted at it, she would have sold her soul to 
the devil to marry him. She knew that it would not be easy to submit 
to his miserliness, or the foolishness of his premature appearance of 
age, or his maniacal sense of order, or his eagerness to ask for 
everything and give nothing at all in return, but despite all this, no 
man was better company because no other man in the world was so in 
need of love. But no other man was as elusive either, so that their 
love never went beyond the point it always reached for him: the point 
where it would not interfere with his determination to remain free for 
Fermina Daza. Nevertheless, it lasted many years, even after he had 
arranged for Prudencia Pitre to marry a salesman who was home for 
three months and traveled for the next three and with whom she had a 
daughter and four sons, one of whom, she swore, was Florentino 
Ariza's. 

They talked, not concerned about the hour, because both were 
accustomed to sharing the sleepless nights of their youth, and they had 
much less to lose in the sleeplessness of old age. Although he almost 
never had more than two glasses of wine, Florentino Ariza still had not 
caught his breath after the third. He was dripping with perspiration, 
and the Widow of Two told him to take off his jacket, his vest, his 
trousers, to take off everything if he liked, what the hell: after all, 
they knew each other better naked than dressed. He said he would if 
she did the same, but she refused: some time ago she had looked at 
herself in the wardrobe mirror and suddenly realized that she would no 
longer have the courage to allow anyone—not him, not anyone--to see 
her undressed. 



Florentine) Ariza, in a state of agitation that he could not calm with four 
glasses of port, talked at length about the same subject: the past, the 
good memories from the past, for he was desperate to find the hidden 
road in the past that would bring him relief. For that was what he 
needed: to let his soul escape through his mouth. When he saw the 
first light of dawn on the horizon, he attempted an indirect approach. 
He asked, in a way that seemed casual: "What would you do if 
someone proposed marriage to you, just as you are, a widow of your 
age?" She laughed with a wrinkled old woman's laugh, and asked in 
turn: "Are you speaking of the Widow Urbino?" 
Florentino Ariza always forgot when he should not have that women, 
and Prudencia Pitre more than any other, always think about the 
hidden meanings of questions more than about the questions 
themselves. Filled with sudden terror because of her chilling 
marksmanship, he slipped through the back door: "I am speaking of 
you." She laughed again: "Go make fun of your bitch of a mother, may 
she rest in peace." Then she urged him to say what he meant to say, 
because she knew that he, or any other man, would not have 
awakened her at three o'clock in the morning after so many years of 
not seeing her just to drink port and eat country bread with pickles. 
She said: "You do that only "when you are looking for someone to cry 
with." Florentino Ariza withdrew in defeat. 

"For once you are wrong," he said. "My reasons tonight have more to 
do with singing." "Let's sing, then," she said. 

And she began to sing, in a very good voice, the song that was popular 
then: Ramona, I cannot live without you. The night was over, for he 
did not dare to play forbidden games with a woman who had proven 
too many times that she knew the dark side of the moon. He walked 



out into a different city, one that was perfumed by the last dahlias of 
J une, and onto a street out of his youth, where the shadowy widows 
from five o'clock Mass were filing by. But now it was he, not they, who 
crossed the street, so they would not see the tears he could no longer 
hold back, not his midnight tears, as he thought, but other tears: the 
ones he had been swallowing for fifty-one years, nine months and four 
days. 

He had lost all track of time, and did not know where he was when he 
awoke facing a large, dazzling window. The voice of America Vicuna 
playing ball in the garden with the servant girls brought him back to 
reality: he was in his mother's bed. He had kept her bedroom intact, 
and he would sleep there to feel less alone on the few occasions when 
he was troubled by his solitude. Across from the bed hung the large 
mirror from Don Sancho's I nn, and he had only to see it when he 
awoke to see Fermina Daza reflected in its depths. He knew that it was 
Saturday, because that was the day the chauffeur picked up America 
Vicuna at her boarding school and brought her back to his house. He 
realized that he had slept without knowing it, dreaming that he could 
not sleep, in a dream that had been disturbed by the wrathful face of 
Fermina Daza. He bathed, wondering what his next step should be, he 
dressed very slowly in his best clothing, he dabbed on cologne and 
waxed the ends of his white mustache, he left the bedroom, and from 
the secondfloor hallway he saw the beautiful child in her uniform 
catching the ball with the grace that had made him tremble on so 
many Saturdays but this morning did not disquiet him in the least. He 
indicated that she should come with him, and before he climbed into 
the automobile he said, although it was not necessary: "Today we are 
not going to do our things." He took her to the American Ice Cream 



Shop, filled at this hour with parents eating ice cream with their 
children under the long blades of the fans that hung from the smooth 
ceiling. America Vicuna ordered an enormous glass filled with layers of 
ice cream, each a different color, her favorite dish and the one that 
was the most popular because it gave off an aura of magic. Florentino 
Ariza drank black coffee and looked at the girl without speaking, while 
she ate the ice cream with a spoon that had a very long handle so that 
one could reach the bottom of the glass. Still looking at her, he said 
without warning: 
"I am going to marry." 

She looked into his eyes with a flash of uncertainty, her spoon 
suspended in midair, but then she recovered and smiled. 
"That's a lie," she said. "Old men don't marry." 

That afternoon he left her at her school under a steady downpour just 
as the Angelus was ringing, after the two of them had watched the 
puppet show in the park, had lunch at the fried-fish stands on the 
jetties, seen the caged animals in the circus that had just come to 
town, bought all kinds of candies at the outdoor stalls to take back to 
school, and driven around the city several times with the top down, so 
that she could become accustomed to the idea that he was her 
guardian and no longer her lover. On Sunday he sent the automobile 
for her in the event she wanted to take a drive with her friends, but he 
did not want to see her, because since the previous week he had come 
to full consciousness of both their ages. That night he decided to write 
a letter of apology to Fermina Daza, its only purpose to show that he 
had not given up, but he put it off until the next day. On Monday, after 
exactly three weeks of agony, he walked into his house, soaked by the 
rain, and found her letter. 



It was eight o'clock at night. The two servant girls were in bed, and 
they had left on the light in the hallway that lit Florentino Ariza's way 
to his bedroom. He knew that his Spartan, bland supper was on the 
table in the dining room, but the slight hunger he felt 
after so many days of haphazard eating vanished with the emotional 
upheaval of the letter. His hands were shaking so much that it was 
difficult for him to turn on the overhead light in the bedroom. He put 
the rain-soaked letter on the bed, lit the lamp on the night table, and 
with the feigned tranquillity that was his customary way of calming 
himself, he took off his wet jacket and hung it on the back of the chair, 
he took off his vest, folded it with care, and placed it on top of the 
jacket, he took off his black silk string tie and the celluloid collar that 
was no longer fashionable in the world, he unbuttoned his shirt down 
to his waist and loosened his belt so that he could breathe with greater 
ease, and at last he took off his hat and put it by the window to dry. 
Then he began to tremble because he did not know where the letter 
was, and his nervous excitement was so great that he was surprised 
when he found it, for he did not remember placing it on the bed. 
Before opening it, he dried the envelope with his handkerchief, taking 
care not to smear the ink in which his name was written, and as he did 
so it occurred to him that the secret was no longer shared by two 
people but by three, at least, for whoever had delivered it must have 
noticed that only three weeks after the death of her husband, the 
Widow Urbino was writing to someone who did not belong to her world, 
and with so much urgency that she did not use the regular mails and 
so much secretiveness that she had ordered that it not be handed to 
anyone but slipped under the door instead, as if it were an anonymous 
letter. He did not have to tear open the envelope, for the water had 



dissolved the glue, but the letter was dry: three closely written pages 
with no salutation, and signed with the initials of her married name. 
He sat on the bed and read it through once as quickly as he could, 
more intrigued by the tone than by the content, and before he reached 
the second page he knew that it was in fact the insulting letter he had 
expected to receive. He laid it, unfolded, in the light shed by the 
bed-lamp, he took off his shoes and his wet socks, he turned out the 
overhead light, using the switch next to the door, and at last he put on 
his chamois mustache cover and lay down without removing his 
trousers and shirt, his head supported by two large pillows that he 
used as a backrest for reading. Now he read it again, this time syllable 
by syllable, scrutinizing each so that none of the letter's secret 
intentions would be hidden from him, and then he read it four more 
times, until he was so full of the written words that they began to lose 
all meaning. At last he placed it, without the envelope, in the drawer 
of the night table, lay on his back with his hands behind his head, and 
for four hours he did not blink, he hardly breathed, he was more dead 
than a dead man, as he stared into the space in the mirror where she 
had been. Precisely at midnight he went to the kitchen and prepared a 
thermos of coffee as thick as crude oil, then he took it to his room, put 
his false teeth into the glass of boric acid solution that he always found 
ready for him on the night table, and resumed the posture of a 
recumbent marble statue, with momentary shifts in position when he 
took a sip of coffee, until the maid came in at six o'clock with a fresh 
thermos. 

Florentino Ariza knew by then what one of his next steps was going to 
be. In truth, the insults caused him no pain, and he was not concerned 
with rectifying the unjust accusations that could have been worse, 



considering Fermina Daza's character and the gravity of the cause. All 
that interested him was that the letter, in and of itself, gave him the 
opportunity, and even recognized his right, to respond. Even more: it 
demanded that he respond. So that life was now at the point where he 
had wanted it to be. Everything else depended on him, and he was 
convinced that his private hell of over half a century's 
duration would still present him with many mortal challenges, which he 
was prepared to confront with more ardor and more sorrow and more 
love than he had brought to any of them before now, because these 
would be the last. 

When he went to his office five days after receiving the letter from 
Fermina Daza, he felt as if he were floating in an abrupt and unusual 
absence of the noise of the typewriters, whose sound, like rain, had 
become less noticeable than silence. It was a moment of calm. When 
the sound began again, Florentino Ariza went to Leona Cas-siani's 
office and watched her as she sat in front of her own personal 
typewriter, which responded to her fingertips as if it were human. She 
knew she was being observed, and she looked toward the door with 
her awesome solar smile, but she did not stop typing until the end of 
the paragraph. 

"Tell me something, lionlady of my soul," asked Florentino Ariza. "How 
would you feel if you received a love letter written on that thing?" 
Her expression—she who was no longer surprised at anything—was one 
of genuine surprise. 

"My God, man!" she exclaimed. "It never occurred to me." 
For that very reason she could make no other reply. Florentino Ariza 
had not thought of it either until that moment, and he decided to risk it 
with no reservations. He took one of the office typewriters home, his 



subordinates joking good-naturedly: "You can't teach an old dog new 
tricks." Leona Cassiani, enthusiastic about anything new, offered to 
give him typing lessons at home. But he had been opposed to 
methodical learning ever since Lotario Thugut had wanted to teach him 
to play the violin by reading notes and warned him that he would need 
at least a year to begin, five more to qualify for a professional 
orchestra, and six hours a day for the rest of his life in order to play 
well. And yet he had convinced his mother to buy him a blind man's 
violin, and with the five basic rules given him by Lotario Thugut, in 
less than a year he had dared to play in the choir of the Cathedral and 
to serenade Fermina Daza from the paupers' cemetery according to the 
direction of the winds. If that had been the case at the age of twenty, 
with something as difficult as the violin, he did not see why it could not 
also be the case at the age of seventy-six, with a one- finger 
instrument like the typewriter. 

He was right. He needed three days to learn the position of the letters 
on the keyboard, another six to learn to think while he typed, and 
three more to complete the first letter without errors after tearing up 
half a ream of paper. He gave it a solemn salutation-Sehora--and 
signed it with his initial, as he had done in the perfumed love letters of 
his youth. He mailed it in an envelope with the mourning vignettes 
that were de rigueur for a letter to a recent widow, and with no return 
address on the back. 

It was a six-page letter, unlike any he had ever written before. It did 
not have the tone, or the style, or the rhetorical air of his early years 
of love, and his argument was so rational and measured that the scent 
of a gardenia would have been out of place. In a certain sense it was 
his closest approximation to the business letters he had never been 



able to write. Years later, a typed personal letter would be considered 
almost an insult, but at that time the typewriter was still an office 
animal without its own code of ethics, and its domestication for 
personal use was not foreseen in the books on etiquette. It seemed 
more like bold modernity, which was how Fermina Daza must have 
understood it, for in her second letter to Florentino Ariza, she began by 
begging his pardon for any difficulties in reading her handwriting, since 
she did not have at her disposal any means more advanced than her 
steel pen. 

Florentino Ariza did not even refer to the terrible letter that she had 
sent him, but from the very beginning he attempted a new method of 
seduction, without any reference to past loves or even to the past 
itself: a clean slate. Instead, he wrote an extensive meditation on life 
based on his ideas about, and experience of, relations between men 
and women, which at one time he had intended to write as a 
complement to the Lovers' Companion. Only now he disguised it in the 
patriarchal style of an old man's memories so that it would not be too 
obvious that it was really a document of love. First he wrote many 
drafts in his old style, which took longer to read with a cool head than 
to throw into the fire. But he knew that any conventional slip, the 
slightest nostalgic indiscretion, could revive the unpleasant taste of the 
past in her heart, and although he foresaw her returning a hundred 
letters to him before she dared open the first, he preferred that it not 
happen even once. And so he planned everything down to the last 
detail, as if it were the final battle: new intrigues, new hopes in a 
woman who had already lived a full and complete life. It had to be a 
mad dream, one that would give her the courage she would need to 
discard the prejudices of a class that had not always been hers but had 



become hers more than anyone's. It had to teach her to think of love 
as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and 
omega, an end in itself. 

He had the good sense not to expect an immediate reply, to be 
satisfied if the letter was not returned to him. It was not, nor were any 
of the ones that followed, and as the days passed, his excitement 
grew, for the more days that passed without her letters being returned, 
the greater his hope of a reply. I n the beginning, the frequency of his 
letters was conditioned by the dexterity of his fingers: first one a 
week, then two, and at last one a day. He was happy about the 
progress made in the mail service since his days as a standard-bearer, 
for he would not have risked being seen every day in the post office 
mailing a letter to the same person, or sending it with someone who 
might talk. On the other hand, it was very easy to send an employee 
to buy enough stamps for a month, and then slip the letter into one of 
the three mailboxes located in the old city. He soon made that ritual a 
part of his routine: he took advantage of his insomnia to write, and the 
next day, on his way to the office, he -would ask the driver to stop for 
a moment at a corner box, and he would get out to mail the letter. He 
never allowed the chauffeur to do it for him, as he attempted to do 
one rainy morning, and at times he took the precaution of carrying 
several letters rather than just one, so that it would seem more 
natural. The chauffeur did not know, of course, that the additional 
letters were blank pages that Florentino Ariza addressed to himself, for 
he had never carried on a private correspondence with anyone, with 
the exception of the guardian's report that he sent at the end of each 
month to the parents of America Vicuna, with his personal impressions 
of the girl's conduct, her state of mind and health, and the progress 



she was making in her studies. 

After the first month he began to number the letters and to head them 

with a synopsis of the previous ones, as in the serialized novels in the 

newspapers, for fear that Fermina Daza would not realize that they had 

a certain continuity. When they became daily letters, moreover, he 

replaced the envelopes that had mourning vignettes with long white 

envelopes, and this gave them the added impersonality of business 

letters. When he began, he was prepared to subject his patience to a 

crucial test, at least until he had proof that he was wasting his time 

with the only new approach he could think of. He waited, in 

fact, not with the many kinds of suffering that waiting had caused him 
in his youth, but with the stubbornness of an old man made of stone 
who had nothing else to think about, nothing else to do in a riverboat 
company that by this time was sailing without his help before 
favorable winds, and who was also convinced that he would be alive 
and in perfect possession of his male faculties the next day, or the day 
after that, or whenever Fermina Daza at last was convinced that there 
was no other remedy for her solitary widow's yearnings than to lower 
the drawbridge for him. 
Meanwhile, he continued with his normal life. In anticipation of a 

favorable reply, he began a second renovation of his house so that it 

would be worthy of the woman who could have considered herself its 

lady and mistress from the day of its purchase. He visited Prudencia 

Pitre again several times, as he had promised, in order to prove to her 

that he loved her despite the devastation wrought by age, loved her in 

full sunlight and with the doors open, and not only on his nights of 

desolation. He continued to pass by Andrea Varon's house until he 

found the bathroom light turned off, and he tried to lose himself in the 

wildness of her bed even though it was only so he would not lose the 



habit of love, in keeping with another of his superstitions, not 
disproved so far, that the body carries on for as long as you do. 
His relations with America Vicuna were the only difficulty. He had 
repeated the order to his chauffeur to pick her up on Saturdays at ten 
o'clock in the morning at the school, but he did not know what to do 
with her during the weekends. For the first time he did not concern 
himself with her, and she resented the change. He placed her in the 
care of the servant girls and had them take her to the afternoon film, 
to the band concerts in the children's park, to the charity bazaars, or 
he arranged Sunday activities for her and her classmates so that he 
would not have to take her to the hidden paradise behind his offices, 
to which she had always wanted to return after the first time he took 
her there. I n the fog of his new illusion, he did not realize that women 
can become adults in three days, and that three years had gone by 
since he had met her boat from Puerto Padre. No matter how he tried 
to soften the blow, it was a brutal change for her, and she could not 
imagine the reason for it. On the day in the ice cream parlor when he 
told her he was going to marry, when he revealed the truth to her, she 
had reeled with panic, but then the possibility seemed so absurd that 
she forgot about it. In a very short while, however, she realized that 
he was behaving with inexplicable evasiveness, as if it was true, as if 
he were not sixty years older than she, but sixty years younger. 
One Saturday afternoon, Florentino Ariza found her trying to type in 
his bedroom, and she was doing rather well, for she was studying 
typing at school. She had completed more than half a page of 
automatic writing, but it was not difficult to isolate an occasional 
phrase that revealed her state of mind. Florentino Ariza leaned over 
her shoulder to read what she had written. She was disturbed by his 



man's heat, by his ragged breathing, by the scent on his clothes, which 
was the same as the scent on his pillow. She was no longer the little 
girl, the newcomer, whom he had undressed, one article of clothing at 
a time, with little baby games: first these little shoes for the little baby 
bear, then this little chemise for the little puppy dog, next these little 
flowered panties for the little bunny rabbit, and a little kiss on her 
papa's delicious little dickey-bird. No: now she was a full-fledged 
woman, who liked to take the initiative. She continued typing with just 
one finger of her right hand, and with her left she felt for his leg, 
explored him, found him, felt him come to life, grow, heard him sigh 
with excitement, and his old man's breathing became uneven and 
labored. She knew him: from that point on he was going to lose 
control, his speech would become disjointed, he would be at her 
mercy, and he would not find his way back until he had reached the 
end. She led him by the hand to the bed as if he were a blind beggar 
on the street, and she cut him into pieces with malicious tenderness; 
she added salt to taste, pepper, a clove of garlic, chopped onion, 
lemon juice, bay leaf, until he was seasoned and on the platter, and 
the oven was heated to the right temperature. There was no one in the 
house. The servant girls had gone out, and the masons and carpenters 
who were renovating the house did not work on Saturdays: they had 
the whole world to themselves. But on the edge of the abyss he came 
out of his ecstasy, moved her hand away, sat up, and said in a 
tremulous voice: 

"Be careful, we have no rubbers." 

She lay on her back in bed for a long time, thinking, and when she 
returned to school an hour early she was beyond all desire to cry, and 
she had sharpened her sense of smell along with her claws so that she 



could track down the miserable whore who had ruined her life. 
Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, made another masculine 
mis-judgment: he believed that she had been convinced of the futility 
of her desires and had resolved to forget him. 
He was back in his element. At the end of six months he had heard 
nothing at all, and he found himself tossing and turning in bed until 
dawn, lost in the wasteland of a new kind of insomnia. He thought that 
Fermina Daza had opened the first letter because of its appearance, 
had seen the initial she knew from the letters of long ago, and had 
thrown it out to be burned with the rest of the trash without even 
taking the trouble to tear it up. J ust seeing the envelopes of those that 
followed would be enough for her to do the same thing without even 
opening them, and to continue to do so until the end of time, while he 
came at last to his final written meditation. He did not believe that the 
woman existed who could resist her curiosity about half a year of 
almost daily letters when she did not even know the color of ink they 
were written in, but if such a woman existed, it had to be her. 
Florentino Ariza felt that his old age was not a rushing torrent but a 
bottomless cistern where his memory drained away. His ingenuity was 
wearing thin. After patrolling the villa in La Manga for several days, he 
realized that this strategy from his youth would never break down the 
doors sealed by mourning. One morning, as he was looking for a 
number in the telephone directory, he happened to come across hers. 
He called. It rang many times, and at last he recognized her grave, 
husky voice: "Hello?" He hung up without speaking, but the infinite 
distance of that unapproachable voice weakened his morale. 
It was at this time that Leona Cassiani celebrated her birthday and 
invited a small group of friends to her house. He was distracted and 



spilled chicken gravy on himself. She cleaned his lapel with the corner 
of his napkin dampened in a glass of water, and then she tied it 
around his neck like a bib to avoid a more serious accident: he looked 
like an old baby. She noticed that several times during dinner he took 
off his eyeglasses and dried them with his handkerchief because his 
eyes were watering. During coffee he fell asleep holding his cup in his 
hand, and she tried to take it away without waking him, but his 
embarrassed response was: "I was just resting my eyes." Leona 
Cassiani went to bed astounded at how his age was beginning to show. 
On the first anniversary of the death of J uvenal Urbino, the family sent 
out invitations to a memorial Mass at the Cathedral. Florentino Ariza 
had still received no reply, and this was the driving force behind his 
bold decision to attend the Mass although he had not been invited. It 
was a social event more ostentatious than emotional. The first few 
rows of pews were reserved for their lifetime owners, whose names 
were engraved on copper nameplates on the backs of their seats. 
Florentino Ariza was among the first to arrive so that he might sit 
where Fermina Daza could not pass by without seeing him. He thought 
that the best seats would be in the central nave, behind the reserved 
pews, but there were so many people he could not find a seat there 
either, and he had to sit in the nave for poor relations. From there he 
saw Fermina Daza walk in on her son's arm, dressed in an unadorned 
long-sleeved black velvet dress buttoned all the way from her neck to 
the tips of her shoes, like a bishop's cassock, and a narrow scarf of 
Castilian lace instead of the veiled hat worn by other widows, and even 
by many other ladies who longed for that condition. Her uncovered 
face shone like alabaster, her lanceolate eyes had a life of their own 
under the enormous chandeliers of the central nave, and as she 



walked she was so erect, so haughty, so self-possessed, that she 
seemed no older than her son. As he stood, Florentino Ariza leaned the 
tips of his fingers against the back of the pew until his dizziness 
passed, for he felt that he and she were not separated by seven paces, 
but existed in two different times. 

Through almost the entire ceremony, Fermina Daza stood in the family 
pew in front of the main altar, as elegant as when she attended the 
opera. But when it was over, she broke with convention and did not 
stay in her seat, according to the custom of the day, to receive the 
spiritual renewal of condolences, but made her way instead through 
the crowd to thank each one of the guests: an innovative gesture that 
was very much in harmony with her style and character. Greeting one 
guest after another, she at last reached the pews of the poor relations, 
and then she looked around to make certain she had not missed 
anyone she knew. At that moment Florentino Ariza felt a supernatural 
wind lifting him out of himself: she had seen him. Fermina Daza 
moved away from her companions with the same assurance she 
brought to everything in society, held out her hand, and with a very 
sweet smile, said to him: 
"Thank you for coming." 

For she had not only received his letters, she had read them with great 
interest and had found in them serious and thoughtful reasons to go on 
living. She had been at the table, having breakfast with her daughter, 
when she received the first one. She opened it because of the novelty 
of its being typewritten, and a sudden blush burned her face when she 
recognized the initial of the signature. But she immediately regained 
her selfpossession and put the letter in her apron pocket. She said: "It 
is a condolence letter from the government." Her daughter was 



surprised: "All of them came already." She was imperturbable: "This is 

another one." Her intention was to burn the letter later, when she was 

away from her daughter's questions, but she could not resist the 

temptation of looking it over first. She expected the reply that her 

insulting letter deserved, a letter that she began to regret the very 

moment she sent it, but from the majestic salutation and the subject of 

the first paragraph, she realized that something had changed in the 

world. She was so intrigued that she locked herself in her bedroom to 

read it at her ease before she burned it, and she read it three times 

without pausing. 

It was a meditation on life, love, old age, death: ideas that had often 

fluttered around her head like nocturnal birds but dissolved into a 

trickle of feathers when she tried to catch hold of them. There they 

were, precise, simple, just as she would have liked to say them, and 

once again she grieved that her husband was not alive to discuss them 

with her as they used to discuss certain events of the day before going 

to sleep. In this way an unknown Florentino Ariza was revealed to her, 

one possessed of a clear-sightedness that in no way corresponded to 

the feverish love letters of his youth or to the somber conduct of his 

entire life. They were, rather, the words of a man who, in the opinion 

of Aunt Escolastica, was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and this thought 

astounded her now as much as it had the first time. I n any case, what 

most calmed her spirit was the certainty that this letter from a wise old 

man was not an attempt to repeat the impertinence of the night of the 

vigil over the body but a very noble way of erasing the past. 

The letters that followed brought her complete calm. Still, she burned 
them after reading them with a growing interest, although burning 
them left her with a sense of guilt that she could not dissipate. So that 



when they began to be numbered, she found the moral justification she 
had been seeking for not destroying them. At any rate, her initial 
intention was not to keep them for herself but to wait for an 
opportunity to return them to Florentino Ariza so that something that 
seemed of such great human value would not be lost. The difficulty 
was that time passed and the letters continued to arrive, one every 
three or four days throughout the year, and she did not know how to 
return them without that appearing to be the rebuff she no longer 
wanted to give, and without having to explain everything in a letter 
that her pride would not permit her to write. 
That first year had been enough time for her to adjust to her 

widowhood. The purified memory of her husband, no longer an 

obstacle in her daily actions, in her private thoughts, in her simplest 

intentions, became a watchful presence that guided but did not hinder 

her. On the occasions when she truly needed him she would see him, 

not as an apparition but as flesh and blood. She was encouraged by 

the certainty that he was there, still alive but without his masculine 

whims, his patriarchal demands, his consuming need for her to love 

him in the same ritual of inopportune kisses and tender words with 

which he loved her. For now she understood him better than when he 

was alive, she understood the yearning of his love, the urgent need he 

felt to find in her the security that seemed to be the mainstay of his 

public life and that in reality he never possessed. One day, at the 

height of desperation, she had shouted at him: "You don't understand 

how unhappy I am." Unperturbed, he took off his eyeglasses with a 

characteristic gesture, he flooded her with the transparent waters of his 

childlike eyes, and in a single phrase he burdened her with the weight 

of his unbearable wisdom: "Always remember that the most important 

thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability." With the first 



loneliness of her widowhood she had understood that the phrase did 
not conceal the miserable threat that she had attributed to it at the 
time, but was the lodestone that had given them both so many happy 
hours. 

On her many journeys through the world, Fermina Daza had bought 
every object that attracted her attention because of its novelty. She 
desired these things with a primitive impulse that her husband was 
happy to rationalize, and they were beautiful, useful objects as long as 
they remained in their original environment, in the show windows of 
Rome, Paris, London, or in the New York, vibrating to the Charleston, 
where skyscrapers were beginning to grow, but they could not 
withstand the test of Strauss waltzes with pork cracklings or Poetic 
Festivals when it was ninety degrees in the shade. And so she would 
return with half a dozen enormous standing trunks made of polished 
metal, with copper locks and corners like decorated coffins, lady and 
mistress of the world's latest marvels, which were worth their price not 
in gold but in the fleeting moment when someone from her local world 
would see them for the first time. For that is why they had been 
bought: so that others could see them. She became aware of her 
frivolous public image long before she began to grow old, and in the 
house she was often heard to say: "We have to get rid of all these 
trinkets; there's no room to turn around." Dr. Urbino would laugh at 
her fruitless efforts, for he knew that the emptied spaces were only 
going to be filled again. But she persisted, because it was true that 
there was no room for anything else and nothing anywhere served any 
purpose, not the shirts hanging on the doorknobs or the overcoats for 
European winters squeezed into the kitchen cupboards. So that on a 
morning when she awoke in high spirits she would raze the clothes 



closets, empty the trunks, tear apart the attics, and wage a war of 
separation against the piles of clothing that had been seen once too 
often, the hats she had never worn because there had been no 
occasion to wear them while they were still in fashion, the shoes 
copied by European artists from those used by empresses for their 
coronations, and which were scorned here by highborn ladies because 
they were identical to the ones that black women bought at the market 
to wear in the house. For the entire morning the interior terrace would 
be in a state of crisis, and in the house it would be difficult to breathe 
because of bitter gusts from the mothballs. But in a few hours order 
would be reestablished because she at last took pity on so much silk 
strewn on the floor, so many leftover brocades and useless pieces of 
passementerie, so many silver fox tails, all condemned to the fire. 
"It is a sin to burn this," she would say, "when so many people do not 
even have enough to eat." 

And so the burning was postponed, it was always postponed, and 
things were only shifted from their places of privilege to the stables 
that had been transformed into storage bins for remnants, while the 
spaces that had been cleared, just as he predicted, began to fill up 
again, to overflow with things that lived for a moment and then went 
to die in the closets: until the next time. She would say: "Someone 
should invent something to do with things you cannot use anymore but 
that you still cannot throw out." That was true: she was dismayed by 
the voracity with which objects kept invading living spaces, displacing 
the humans, forcing them back into the corners, until Fermina Daza 
pushed the objects out of sight. For she was not as ordered as people 
thought, but she did have her own desperate method for appearing to 
be so: she hid the disorder. The day that Juvenal Urbino died, they had 



to empty out half of his study and pile the things in the bedrooms so 
there would be space to lay out the body. 

Death's passage through the house brought the solution. Once she had 
burned her husband's clothes, Fermina Daza realized that her hand had 
not trembled, and on the same impulse she continued to light the fire 
at regular intervals, throwing everything on it, old and new, not 
thinking about the envy of the rich or the vengeance of the poor who 
were dying of hunger. Finally, she had the mango tree cut back at the 
roots until there was nothing left of that misfortune, and she gave the 
live parrot to the new Museum of the City. Only then did she draw a 
free breath in the kind of house she had always dreamed of: large, 
easy, and all hers. 

Her daughter Ofelia spent three months with her and then returned to 
New Orleans. Her son brought his family to lunch on Sundays and as 
often as he could during the week. Fermina Daza's closest friends 
began to visit her once she had overcome the crisis of her 
mourning, they played cards facing the bare patio, they tried out new 
recipes, they brought her up to date on the secret life of the insatiable 
world that continued to exist without her. One of the most faithful was 
Lucrecia del Real del Obispo, an aristocrat of the old school who had 
always been a good friend and who drew even closer after the death of 
Juvenal Urbino. Stiff with arthritis and repenting her wayward life, in 
those days Lucrecia del Real not only provided her with the best 
company, she also consulted with her regarding the civic and secular 
projects that were being arranged in the city, and this made her feel 
useful for her own sake and not because of the protective shadow of 
her husband. And yet she was never so closely identified with him as 
she was then, for she was no longer called by her maiden name, and 



she became known as the Widow Urbino. 

It seemed incredible, but as the first anniversary of her husband's 
death approached, Fermina Daza felt herself entering a place that was 
shady, cool, quiet: the grove of the irremediable. She was not yet 
aware, and would not be for several months, of how much the written 
meditations of Florentino Ariza had helped her to recover her peace of 
mind. Applied to her own experiences, they were what allowed her to 
understand her own life and to await the designs of old age with 
serenity. Their meeting at the memorial Mass was a providential 
opportunity for her to let Florentino Ariza know that she, too, thanks to 
his letters of encouragement, was prepared to erase the past. 
Two days later she received a different kind of letter from him: 
handwritten on linen paper and his complete name inscribed with great 
clarity on the back of the envelope. It was the same ornate 
handwriting as in his earlier letters, the same will to lyricism, but 
applied to a simple paragraph of gratitude for the courtesy of her 
greeting in the Cathedral. For several days after she read the letter 
Fermina Daza continued to think about it with troubled memories, but 
with a conscience so clear that on the following Thursday she suddenly 
asked Lucrecia del Real del Obispo if she happened to know Florentino 
Ariza, the, owner of the riverboats. Lucrecia replied that she did: "He 
seems to be a wandering succubus." She repeated the common gossip 
that he had never had a woman although he was such a good catch, 
and that he had a secret office where he took the boys he pursued at 
night along the docks. Fermina Daza had heard that story for as long 
as she could remember, and she had never believed it or given it any 
importance. But when she heard it repeated with so much conviction 
by Lucrecia del Real del Obispo, who had also been rumored at one 



time to have strange tastes, she could not resist the urge to clarify 
matters. She said she had known Florentino Ariza since he was a boy. 
She reminded her that his mother had owned a notions shop on the 
Street of Windows and also bought old shirts and sheets, which she 
unraveled and sold as bandages during the civil wars. And she 
concluded with conviction: "He is an honorable man, and he is the soul 
of tact." She was so vehement that Lucrecia took back what she had 
said: "When all is said and done, they also say the same sort of thing 
about me." Fermina Daza was not curious enough to ask herself why 
she was making so passionate a defense of a man who had been no 
more than a shadow in her life. She continued to think about him, 
above all when the mail arrived without another letter from him. Two 
weeks of silence had gone by when one of the servant girls woke her 
during her siesta with a warning whisper: "Sehora," she said, "Don 
Florentino is here." 

He was there. Fermina Daza's first reaction was panic. She thought no, 
he should come back another day at a more appropriate hour, she was 
in no condition to receive visitors, there was nothing to talk about. But 
she recovered instantly and told her to show him into 
the drawing room and bring him coffee, while she tidied herself before 
seeing him. Florentino Ariza had waited at the street door, burning 
under the infernal three o'clock sun, but in full control of the situation. 
He was prepared not to be received, even with an amiable excuse, and 
that certainty kept him calm. But the decisiveness of her message 
shook him to his very marrow, and when he walked into the cool 
shadows of the drawing room he did not have time to think about the 
miracle he was experiencing because his intestines suddenly filled in 
an explosion of painful foam. He sat down, holding his breath, 



hounded by the damnable memory of the bird droppings on his first 
love letter, and he remained motionless in the shadowy darkness until 
the first attack of shivering had passed, resolved to accept any mishap 
at that moment except this unjust misfortune. 

He knew himself well: despite his congenital constipation, his belly had 
betrayed him in public three or four times in the course of his many 
years, and those three or four times he had been obliged to give in. 
Only on those occasions, and on others of equal urgency, did he realize 
the truth of the words that he liked to repeat in jest: "I do not believe 
in God, but I am afraid of Him." He did not have time for doubts: he 
tried to say any prayer he could remember, but he could not think of a 
single one. When he was a boy, another boy had taught him magic 
words for hitting a bird with a stone: "Aim, aim, got my aim- if I miss 
you I 'm not to blame." He used it when he went to the country for the 
first time with a new slingshot, and the bird fell down dead. I n a 
confused way he thought that one thing had something to do with the 
other, and he repeated the formula now with the fervor of a prayer, 
but it did not have the desired effect. A twisting in his guts like the coil 
of a spring lifted him from his seat, the foaming in his belly grew 
thicker and more painful, it grumbled a lament and left him covered 
with icy sweat. The maid who brought him the coffee was frightened 
by his corpse's face. He sighed: "It's the heat." She opened the 
window, thinking she would make him more comfortable, but the 
afternoon sun hit him full in the face and she had to close it again. He 
knew he could not hold out another moment, and then Fermina Daza 
came in, almost invisible in the darkness, dismayed at seeing him in 
such a state. 
"You can take off your jacket," she said to him. 



He suffered less from the deadly griping of his bowels than from the 
thought that she might hear them bubbling. But he managed to endure 
just an instant longer to say no, he had only passed by to ask her 
when he might visit. Still standing, she said to him in confusion: "Well, 
you are here now." And she invited him to the terrace in the patio, 
where it was cooler. He refused in a voice that seemed to her like a 
sigh of sorrow. 

"I beg you, let it be tomorrow," he said. 

She remembered that tomorrow was Thursday, the day when Lucrecia 
del Real del Obispo made her regular visit, but she had the perfect 
solution: "The day after tomorrow at five o'clock." Florentino Ariza 
thanked her, bid an urgent farewell with his hat, and left without 
tasting the coffee. She stood in the middle of the drawing room, 
puzzled, not understanding what had just happened, until the sound of 
his automobile's backfiring faded at the end of the street. Then 
Florentino Ariza shifted into a less painful position in the back seat, 
closed his eyes, relaxed his muscles, and surrendered to the will of his 
body. It was like being reborn. The driver, who after so many years in 
his service was no longer surprised at anything, remained impassive. 
But when he opened the door for him in front of his house, he said: 
"Be careful, Don Floro, that looks like cholera." 

But it was only his usual ailment. Florentino Ariza thanked God for that 
on Friday, at five o'clock sharp, when the maid led him through the 
darkness of the drawing room to the terrace in the patio, where he saw 
Fermina Daza sitting beside a small table set for two. She offered him 
tea, chocolate, or coffee. Florentino Ariza asked for coffee, very hot 
and very strong, and she told the maid: "The usual for me." The usual 
was a strong infusion of different kinds of Oriental teas, which raised 



her spirits after her siesta. By the time she had emptied the teapot and 
he the coffeepot, they had both attempted and then broken off several 
topics of conversation, not so much because they were really 
interested in them but in order to avoid others that neither dared to 
broach. They were both intimidated, they could not understand what 
they were doing so far from their youth on a terrace with checkerboard 
tiles in a house that belonged to no one and that was still redolent of 
cemetery flowers. It was the first time in half a century that they had 
been so close and had enough time to look at each other with some 
serenity, and they had seen each other for what they were: two old 
people, ambushed by death, who had nothing in common except the 
memory of an ephemeral past that was no longer theirs but belonged 
to two young people who had vanished and who could have been their 
grandchildren. She thought that he would at last be convinced of the 
unreality of his dream, and that this would redeem his insolence. 
I n order to avoid uncomfortable silences or undesirable subjects, she 
asked obvious questions about riverboats. It seemed incredible that 
he, the owner, had only traveled the river once, many years ago, 
before he had anything to do with the company. She did not know his 
reasons, and he would have been willing to sell his soul if he could 
have told them to her. She did not know the river either. Her husband 
had an aversion to the air of the Andes that he concealed with a 
variety of excuses: the dangers to the heart of the altitude, the risks of 
pneumonia, the duplicity of the people, the injustices of centralism. 
And so they knew half the world, but they did not know their own 
country. Nowadays there was a J unkers seaplane that flew from town 
to town along the basin of the Magdalena like an aluminum 
grasshopper, with two crew members, six passengers, and many sacks 



of mail. Florentine) Ariza commented: "It is like a flying coffin." She 
had been on the first balloon flight and had experienced no fear, but 
she could hardly believe that she was the same person who had dared 
such an adventure. She said: "Things have changed." Meaning that she 
was the one who had changed, and not the means of transportation. 
At times the sound of airplanes took her by surprise. She had seen 
them flying very low and performing acrobatic maneuvers on the 
centenary of the death of The Liberator. One of them, as black as an 
enormous turkey buzzard, grazed the roofs of the houses in La Manga, 
left a piece of wing in a nearby tree, and was caught in the electrical 
wires. But not even that had convinced Fermina Daza of the existence 
of airplanes. In recent years she had not even had the curiosity to go 
to Manzanillo Bay, where seaplanes landed on the water after the 
police launches had warned away the fishermen's canoes and the 
growing numbers of recreational boats. Because of her age, she had 
been chosen to greet Charles Lindbergh with a bouquet of roses when 
he came here on his goodwill flight, and she could not understand how 
a man who was so tall, so blond, so handsome, could go up in a 
contraption that looked as if it were made of corrugated tin and that 
two mechanics had to push by the tail to help lift it off the ground. She 
just could not get it through her head that airplanes not much larger 
than that one could carry eight people. On the other hand, she had 
heard that the riverboats were a delight because they did not roll like 
ocean liners, although there were other, more serious dangers, such as 
sandbars and attacks by bandits. 

Florentino Ariza explained that those were all legends from another 
time: these days the riverboats had ballrooms and cabins as spacious 
and luxurious as hotel rooms, with private baths and electric fans, and 



there had been no armed attacks since the last civil war. He also 
explained, with the satisfaction of a personal triumph, that these 
advances were due more than anything else to the freedom of 
navigation that he had fought for and which had stimulated 
competition: instead of a single company, as in the past, there were 
now three, which were very active and prosperous. Nevertheless, the 
rapid progress of aviation was a real threat to all of them. She tried to 
console him: boats would always exist because there were not many 
people crazy enough to get into a contraption that seemed to go 
against nature. Then Florentino Ariza spoke of improvements in mail 
service, transportation as well as delivery, in an effort to have her talk 
about his letters. But he was not successful. 

Soon afterward, however, the occasion arose on its own. They had 
moved far afield of the subject when a maid interrupted them to hand 
Fermina Daza a letter that had just arrived by special urban mail, a 
recent creation that used the same method of distribution as 
telegrams. As always, she could not find her reading glasses. 
Florentino Ariza remained calm. 

"That will not be necessary," he said. "The letter is mine." 
And so it was. He had written it the day before, in a terrible state of 
depression because he could not overcome the embarrassment of his 
first frustrated visit. In it he begged her pardon for the impertinence of 
attempting to visit her without first obtaining her permission, and he 
promised never to return. He had mailed it without thinking, and when 
he did have second thoughts it was too late to retrieve it. But he did 
not believe so many explanations were necessary, and he simply 
asked Fermina Daza please not to read the letter. 
"Of course," she said. "After all, letters belong to the person who writes 



them. Don't you agree?" 
He made a bold move. 

"I do," he said. "That is why they are the first things returned when an 
affair is ended." She ignored his hidden intentions and returned the 
letter to him, saying: "It is a shame that I cannot read it, because the 
others have helped me a great deal." He took a deep breath, 
astounded that she had said so much more than he had hoped for in so 
spontaneous a manner, and he said: "You cannot imagine how happy I 
am to know that." But she changed the subject, and he could not 
manage to bring it up again for the rest of the afternoon. 
He left well after six o'clock, as they were beginning to turn on the 
lights in the house. He felt more secure but did not have many 
illusions, because he could not forget Fermina Daza's fickle character 
and unpredictable reactions at the age of twenty, and he had no 
reason to think that she had changed. Therefore he risked asking, with 
sincere humility, if he might return another day, and once again her 
reply took him by surprise. 

"Come back whenever you like," she said. "I am almost always alone." 
Four days later, on Tuesday, he returned unannounced, and she did 
not wait for the tea to be served to tell him how much his letters had 
helped her. He said that they were not letters in the strict sense of the 
word, but pages from a book that he would like to write. She, too, had 
understood them in that way. In fact, she had intended to return them, 
if he would not take that as an insult, so that they could be put to 
better use. She continued speaking of how they had helped her during 
this difficult time, with so much enthusiasm, so much gratitude, 
perhaps with so much affection, that Florentino Ariza risked something 
more than a bold move: it was a somersault. 



"We called each other tu before," he said. 

It was a forbidden word: "before." She felt the chimerical angel of the 

past flying overhead, and she tried to elude it. But he went even 

further: "Before, I mean, in our letters." She was annoyed, and she 

had to make a serious effort to conceal it. But he knew, and he 

realized that he had to move with more tact, although the blunder 

showed him that her temper was still as short as it had been in her 

youth although she had learned to soften it. 

"I mean," he said, "that these letters are something very different." 

"Everything in the world has changed," she said. 

"I have not," he said. "Have you?" 

She sat with her second cup of tea halfway to her mouth and rebuked 

him with eyes that had survived so many inclemencies. 

"By now it does not matter," she said. "I have just turned 

seventy- two." 

Florentino Ariza felt the blow in the very center of his heart. He would 

have liked to find a reply as rapid and well aimed as an arrow, but the 

burden of his age defeated him: he had never been so exhausted by 

so brief a conversation, he felt pain in his heart, and each beat echoed 

with a metallic resonance in his arteries. He felt old, forlorn, useless, 

and his desire to cry was so urgent that he could not speak. They 

finished their second cup in a silence furrowed by presentiments, and 

when she spoke again it was to ask a maid to bring her the folder of 

letters. He was on the verge of asking her to keep them for herself, 

since he had made carbon copies, but he thought this precaution would 

seem ignoble. There was nothing else to say. Before he left he 

suggested coming back on the following Tuesday at the same time. 

She asked herself whether she should be so acquiescent. 



"I don't see what sense so many visits would make," she said. "I hadn't 
thought they made any sense," he said. 

And so he returned on Tuesday at five o'clock, and then every Tuesday 
after that, and he ignored the convention of notifying her, because by 
the end of the second month the weekly visits had been incorporated 
into both their routines. Florentino Ariza brought English biscuits for 
tea, candied chestnuts, Greek olives, little salon delicacies that he 
would find on the ocean liners. One Tuesday he brought her a copy of 
the picture of her and Hildebranda taken by the Belgian photographer 
more than half a century before, which he had bought for fifteen 
centavos at a postcard sale in the Arcade of the Scribes. Fermina Daza 
could not understand how it had come to be there, and he could only 
understand it as a miracle of love. One morning, as he was cutting 
roses in his garden, Florentino Ariza could not resist the temptation of 
taking one to her on his next visit. It was a difficult problem in the 
language of flowers because she was a recent widow. A red rose, 
symbol of flaming passion, might offend her mourning. Yellow roses, 
which in another language were the flowers of good fortune, were an 
expression of jealousy in the common vocabulary. He had heard of the 
black roses of Turkey, which were perhaps the most appropriate, but 
he had not been able to obtain any for acclimatization in his patio. 
After much thought he risked a white rose, which he liked less than the 
others because it was insipid and mute: it did not say anything. At the 
last minute, in case Fermina Daza was suspicious enough to attribute 
some meaning to it, he removed the thorns. 
It was well received as a gift with no hidden intentions, and the 
Tuesday ritual was enriched, so that when he would arrive with the 
white rose, the vase filled with water was ready in the center of the 



tea table. One Tuesday, as he placed the rose in the vase, he said in 

an apparently casual manner: 

"In our day it was camellias, not roses." 

"That is true," she said, "but the intention was different, and you know 

it." 

That is how it always was: he would attempt to move forward, and she 

would block the way. But on this occasion, despite her ready answer, 

Florentino Ariza realized that he had hit the mark, because she had to 

turn her face so that he would not see her blush. A burning, childish 

blush, with a life of its own and an insolence that turned her vexation 

on herself. Florentino Ariza was very careful to move to other, less 

offensive topics, but his courtesy was so obvious that she knew she 

had been found out, and that increased her anger. It was an evil 

Tuesday. She was on the point of asking him not to return, but the 

idea of a lovers' quarrel seemed so ridiculous at their age and in their 

circumstances that it provoked a fit of laughter. The following Tuesday, 

when Florentino Ariza was placing the rose in the vase, she examined 

her conscience and discovered to her joy that not a vestige of 

resentment was left over from the previous week. 

His visits soon began to acquire an awkward familial amplitude, for Dr. 
Urbino Daza and his wife would sometimes appear as if by accident, 
and they would stay to play cards. Florentino Ariza did not know how 
to play, but Fermina taught him in just one visit and they both sent a 
written challenge to the Urbino Dazas for the following Tuesday. The 
games were so pleasant for everyone that they soon became as official 
as his visits, and patterns were established for each person's 
contribution. Dr. Urbino and his wife, who was an excellent 
confectioner, brought exquisite pastries, a different one each time. 
Florentino Ariza continued to bring delicacies from the European ships, 
and Fermina Daza found a way to contribute a new surprise each time. 



They played on the third Tuesday of every month, and although they 
did not wager with money, the loser was obliged to contribute 
something special to the next game. 
There was no difference between Dr. Urbino Daza and his public 

image: his talents were limited, his manner awkward, and he suffered 

from sudden twitching, caused by either happiness or annoyance, and 

from inopportune blushing, which made one fear for his mental 

fortitude. But it was evident on first meeting him that he was, beyond 

the shadow of a doubt, what Florentino Ariza most feared people would 

call him: a good man. His wife, on the other hand, was vivacious and 

had a plebeian spark of sharp wit that gave a more human note to her 

elegance. One could not wish for a better couple to play cards with, 

and Florentino Ariza's insatiable need for love overflowed with the 

illusion of feeling that he was part of a family. 

One night, as they were leaving the house together, Dr. Urbino Daza 

asked him to have lunch with him: "Tomorrow, at twelve-thirty, at the 

Social Club." It was an exquisite dish served with a poisonous wine: 

the Social Club reserved the right to refuse admission for any number 

of reasons, and one of the most important was illegitimate birth. Uncle 

Leo XII had experienced great annoyance in this regard, and 

Florentino Ariza himself had suffered the humiliation of being asked to 

leave when he was already sitting at the table as the guest of one of 

the founding members, for whom Florentino Ariza had performed 

complex favors in the area of river commerce, and who had no other 

choice but to take him elsewhere to eat. 

"Those of us who make the rules have the greatest obligation to abide 

by them," he had said to him. 

Nevertheless Florentino Ariza took the risk with Dr. Urbino Daza, and 



he was welcomed with special deference, although he was not asked to 
sign the gold book for notable guests. The lunch was brief, there were 
just the two of them, and its tone was subdued. The fears regarding 
the meeting that had troubled Florentino Ariza since the previous 
afternoon vanished with the port he had as an aperitif. Dr. Urbino Daza 
wanted to talk to him about his mother. Because of everything that he 
said, Florentino Ariza realized that she had spoken to her son about 
him. And something still more surprising: she had lied on his behalf. 
She told him that they had been childhood friends, playmates from the 
time of her arrival from San J uan de la Cienaga, and that he had 
introduced her to reading, for which she was forever grateful. She also 
told him that after school she had often spent long hours in the notions 
shop with Transito Ariza, performing prodigious feats of embroidery, 
for she had been a notable teacher, and that if she had not continued 
seeing Florentino Ariza with the same frequency, it had not been 
through choice but because of how their lives had diverged. 
Before he came to the heart of his intentions, Dr. Urbino Daza made 
several digressions on the subject of aging. He thought that the world 
would make more rapid progress without the burden of old people. He 
said: "Humanity, like armies in the field, advances at the speed of the 
slowest." He foresaw a more humanitarian and by the same token a 
more civilized future in which men and women would be isolated in 
marginal cities when they could no longer take care of themselves so 
that they might be spared the humiliation, suffering, and frightful 
loneliness of old age. From the medical point of view, according to 
him, the proper age limit would be seventy. But until they reached that 
degree of charity, the only solution was nursing homes, where the old 
could console each other and share their likes and dislikes, their habits 



and sorrows, safe from their natural disagreements with the younger 
generation. He said: "Old people, with other old people, are not so 
old." Well, then: Dr. Urbino Daza wanted to thank Florentino Ariza for 
the good companionship he gave his mother in the solitude of her 
widowhood, he begged him to continue doing so for the good of them 
both and the convenience of all, and to have patience with her senile 
whims. Florentino Ariza was relieved with the outcome of their 
interview. "Don't worry," he said. "I am now four years older than she 
is, and have been since long, long before you were born." Then he 
succumbed to the temptation of giving vent to his feelings with an 
ironic barb. 

"In the society of the future," he concluded, "you would have to visit 
the cemetery now to bring her and me a bouquet of arum lilies for 
lunch." 

Until that moment Dr. Urbino Daza had not noticed the 
inappropriateness of his prognostications, and he became enmeshed in 
a long series of explanations that only made matters worse. But 
Florentino Ariza helped him to extricate himself. He was radiant, for he 
knew that sooner or later he was going to have another meeting like 
this one with Dr. Urbino Daza in order to satisfy an unavoidable social 
convention: the formal request for his mother's hand in marriage. The 
lunch had been very encouraging, not only in and of itself but because 
it showed him how simple and well received that inexorable request 
was going to be. If he could have counted on Fermina Daza's consent, 
no occasion would have been more propitious. Moreover, after their 
conversation at this historic lunch, the formality of a request was 
almost de trop. 
Even in his youth Florentino Ariza climbed up and down stairs with 



special care, for he had always believed that old age began with one's 
first minor fall and that death came with the second. The staircase in 
his offices seemed the most dangerous of all to him because it was so 
steep and narrow, and long before he had to make a special effort not 
to drag his feet, he would climb it with his eyes fixed on each step and 
both hands clutching the banister. It had often been suggested that he 
replace it with one that was less dangerous, but he always put off the 
decision until next month because he thought it was a concession to old 
age. As the years passed, it took him longer and longer to walk up the 
stairs, not because it was harder for him, as he himself hurried to 
explain, but because he used greater and greater care in the climb. 
Nevertheless, on the afternoon when he returned from lunch with Dr. 
Urbino Daza, after the aperitif of port and half a glass of red wine with 
the meal, and above all after their triumphal conversation, he tried to 
reach the third stair with so youthful a dance step that he twisted his 
left ankle, fell backward, and only by a miracle did not kill himself. As 
he was falling he had enough lucidity to think that he was not going to 
die of this accident because the logic of life would not allow two men, 
who had loved the same woman so much for so many years, to die in 
the same way within a year of each other. He was right. He was put 
into a plaster cast from his foot to his calf and forced to remain 
immobile in bed, but he was livelier than he had been before his fall. 
When the doctor ordered sixty days of convalescence, he could not 
believe his misfortune. 

"Don't do this to me, Doctor," he begged. "Two months for me are like 
ten years for you." 

He tried to get up several times, holding his leg that was like a 
statue's, with both hands, and reality always defeated him. But when 



at last he walked again, his ankle still painful and his back raw, he had 
more than enough reasons to believe that destiny had rewarded his 
perseverance with a providential fall. 

The first Monday was his worst day. The pain had eased and the 
medical prognosis was very encouraging, but he refused to accept the 
fatality of not seeing Fermina Daza the following afternoon for the first 
time in four months. Nevertheless, after a resigned siesta, he 
submitted to reality and wrote her a note excusing himself. He wrote it 
by hand on perfumed paper and in luminous ink so that it could be 
read in the dark, and with no sense of shame he dramatized the 
gravity of his accident in an effort to arouse her compassion. She 
answered him two days later, very sympathetic, very kind, without one 
word extra, just as in the great days of their love. He seized the 
opportunity as it flew by and wrote to her again. When she answered a 
second time, he decided to go much further than in their coded 
Tuesday conversations, and he had a telephone installed next to his 
bed on the pretext of keeping an eye on the company's daily affairs. 
He asked the operator to connect him with the three-digit number that 
he had known by heart since the first time he dialed it. The quiet voice 
strained by the mystery of distance, the beloved voice answered, 
recognized the other voice, and said goodbye after three conventional 
phrases of greeting. Florentino Ariza was devastated by her 
indifference: they were back at the beginning. 

Two days later, however, he received a letter from Fermina Daza in 
which she begged him not to call again. Her reasons were valid. There 
were so few telephones in the city that all communication took place 
through an operator who knew all the subscribers, their lives, their 
miracles, and it did not matter if they were not at home: she would 



find them wherever they might be. In return for such efficiency she 
kept herself informed of their conversations, she uncovered the 
secrets, the best-kept dramas of their private lives, and it was not 
unusual for her to interrupt a conversation in order to express her 
point of view or to calm tempers. Then, too, that year marked the 
founding of Justice, an evening newspaper whose sole purpose was to 
attack the families with long last names, inherited and unencumbered 
names, which was the publisher's revenge because his sons had not 
been admitted to the Social Club. Despite her unimpeachable life, 
Fermina Daza was more careful now than ever of everything she said 
or did, even with her closest friends. So that she maintained her 
connection to Florentino Ariza by means of the anachronistic thread of 
letters. The correspondence back and forth became so frequent and 
intense that he forgot about his leg and the chastisement of the bed, 
he forgot about everything, and he dedicated himself totally to writing 
on the kind of portable table used in hospitals to serve meals to 
patients. 

They called each other tu again, again they exchanged commentaries 
on their lives as they had done once before in their letters, and again 
Florentino Ariza tried to move too quickly: he wrote her name with the 
point of a pin on the petals of a camellia and sent it to her in a letter. 
Two days later it was returned with no message. Fermina Daza could 
not help it: all that seemed like children's games to her, most of all 
when Florentino Ariza insisted on evoking the afternoons of melancholy 
verses in the Park of the Evangels, the letters hidden along her route 
to school, the embroidery lessons under the almond trees. With 
sorrowing heart she reprimanded him in what appeared to be a casual 
question in the midst of other trivial remarks: "Why do you insist on 



talking about what does not exist?" Later she reproached him for his 
fruitless insistence on not permitting himself to grow old in a natural 
way. This was, according to her, the reason for his haste and constant 
blundering as he evoked the past. She could not understand how a 
man capable of the thoughts that had given her the strength to endure 
her widowhood could become entangled in so childish a manner when 
he attempted to apply them to his own life. Their roles were reversed. 
Now it was she who tried to give him new courage to face the future, 
with a phrase that he, in his reckless haste, could not decipher: Let 
time pass and we will see what it brings. For he was never as good a 
student as she was. His forced immobility, the growing lucidity of his 
conviction that time was fleeting, his mad desire to see her, everything 
proved to him that his fear of falling had been more accurate and 
more tragic than he had foreseen. For the first time, he began to think 
in a reasoned way about the reality of death. 

Leona Cassiani helped him to bathe and to change his pajamas every 
other day, she gave him his enemas, she held the portable urinal for 
him, she applied arnica compresses to the bedsores on his back, she 
gave him the massages recommended by the doctor so that his 
immobility would not cause other, more severe ailments. On Saturdays 
and Sundays she was relieved by America Vicuna, who was to receive 
her teaching degree in December of that year. He had promised to 
send her to Alabama for further study, at the expense of the river 
company, in part to quiet his conscience and above all in order not to 
face either the reproaches that she did not know how to make to him 
or the explanations that he owed to her. He never imagined how much 
she suffered during her sleepless nights at school, during the weekends 
without him, during her life without him, because he never imagined 



how much she loved him. He had been informed in an official letter 
from the school that she had fallen from her perpetual first place in the 
class to last, and that she had almost failed her final examinations. But 
he ignored his duty as guardian: he said nothing to America Vicuna's 
parents, restrained by a sense of guilt that he tried to elude, and he 
did not discuss it with her because of a well-founded fear that she 
would try to implicate him in her failure. And so he left things as they 
were. Without realizing it, he was beginning to defer his problems in 
the hope that death would resolve them. 

The two women who took care of him, and Florentino Ariza himself, 
were surprised at how much he had changed. Less than ten years 
before, he had assaulted one of the maids behind the main staircase in 
the house, dressed and standing as she was, and in less time than a 
Filipino rooster he had left her in a family way. He had to give her a 
furnished house in exchange for her swearing that the author of her 
dishonor was a part-time, Sunday sweetheart who had never even 
kissed her, and her father and uncles, who were proficient sugarcane 
cutters, forced them to marry. It did not seem possible that this could 
be the same man, this man handled front and back by two women who 
just a few months earlier had made him tremble with love and who 
now soaped him above his waist and below, dried him with towels of 
Egyptian cotton, and massaged his entire body, while he did not emit a 
single sigh of passion. Each of them had a different explanation for his 
lack of desire. Leona Cassiani thought it was the prelude to death. 
America Vicuna attributed it to a hidden cause whose intricacies she 
could not decipher. He alone knew the truth, and it had its own name. 
I n any case, it was unfair: they suffered more in serving him than he 
did in being so well served. 



Fermina Daza needed no more than three Tuesdays to realize how 
much she missed Florentino Ariza's visits. She enjoyed the friends who 
were frequent visitors, and she enjoyed them even more as time 
distanced her from her husband's habits. Lucrecia del Real del Obispo 
had gone to Panama to have her ear examined because of a pain that 
nothing could ease, and after a month she came back feeling much 
better, but hearing less than she had before and using an ear trumpet. 
Fermina Daza was the friend who was most tolerant of her confusions 
of questions and answers, and this was so encouraging to Lucrecia that 
hardly a day went by that she did not stop in at any hour. But for 
Fermina Daza no one could take the place of her calming afternoons 
with Florentino Ariza. 

The memory of the past did not redeem the future, as he insisted on 
believing. On the contrary, it strengthened the conviction that Fermina 
Daza had always had, that the feverish excitement of twenty had been 
something very noble, very beautiful, but it had not been love. Despite 
her rough honesty she did not intend to disclose that to him, either by 
mail or in person, nor did she have it in her heart to tell him how false 
the sentimentalities of his letters sounded after the miraculous 
consolation of his written meditations, how his lyrical lies cheapened 
him, how detrimental his maniacal insistence on recapturing the past 
was to his cause. No: not one line of his letters of long ago, not a 
single moment of her own despised youth, had made her feel that 
Tuesday afternoons without him could be as tedious, as lonely, and as 
repetitious as they really were. 

In one of her attacks of simplification, she had relegated to the stables 
the radioconsole that her husband had given her as an anniversary 
gift, and which both of them had intended to present to the Museum as 



the first in the city. In the gloom of her mourning she had resolved not 
to use it again, for a widow bearing her family names could not listen 
to any kind of music without offending the memory of the dead, even 
if she did so in private. But after her third solitary Tuesday she had it 
brought back to the drawing room, not to enjoy the sentimental song 
on the Riobamba station, as she had done before, but to fill her idle 
hours with the soap operas from Santiago de Cuba. It was a good idea, 
for after the birth of her daughter she had begun to lose the habit of 
reading that her husband had inculcated with so much diligence ever 
since their honeymoon, and with the progressive fatigue of her eyes 
she had stopped altogether, so that months would go by without her 
knowing where she had left her reading glasses. 
She took such a liking to the soap operas from Santiago de Cuba that 
she waited with impatience for each day's new episode. From time to 
time she listened to the news to find out what was going on in the 
world, and on the few occasions when she was alone in the house she 
would turn the volume very low and listen to distant, clear merengues 
from Santo Domingo and plenas from Puerto Rico. One night, on an 
unknown station that suddenly came in as strong and clear as if it were 
next door, she heard heartbreaking news: an elderly couple, who for 
forty years had been repeating their honeymoon every year in the 
same spot, had been murdered, bludgeoned to death with oars by the 
skipper of the boat they were riding in, who then robbed them of all 
the money they were carrying: fourteen dollars. The effect on her was 
even more devastating when Lucrecia del Real told her the complete 
story, which had been published in a local newspaper. The police had 
discovered that the elderly couple beaten to death were clandestine 
lovers who had taken their vacations together for forty years, but who 



each had a stable and happy marriage as well as very large families. 
Fermina Daza, who never cried over the soap operas on the radio, had 
to hold back the knot of tears that choked her. I n his next letter, 
without any comment, Florentino Ariza sent her the news item that he 
had cut out of the paper. 

These were not the last tears that Fermina Daza was going to hold 
back. Florentino Ariza had not yet finished his sixty days of seclusion 
when Justice published a front-page story, complete with photographs 
of the two protagonists, about the alleged secret love affair between 
Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Lucrecia del Real del Obispo. There was 
speculation on the details of their relationship, the frequency of their 
meetings and how they were arranged, and the complicity of her 
husband, who was given to excesses of sodomy with the blacks on his 
sugar plantation. The story, published in enormous block letters in an 
ink the color of blood, fell like a thundering cataclysm on the 
enfeebled local aristocracy. Not a line of it was true: J uvenal Urbino 
and Lucrecia del Real had been close friends in the days when they 
were both single, and they had continued their friendship after their 
marriages, but they had never been lovers. I n any case, it did not 
seem that the purpose of the story was to sully the name of Dr. 
J uvenal Urbino, whose memory enjoyed universal respect, but to injure 
the husband of Lucrecia del Real, who had been elected President of 
the Social Club the week before. The scandalous story was suppressed 
in a few hours. But Lucrecia del Real did not visit Fermina Daza again, 
and Fermina Daza interpreted this as a confession of guilt. 
It was soon obvious, however, that Fermina Daza was not immune to 
the hazards of her class. Justice attacked her one weak flank: her 
father's business. When he was forced into exile, she knew of only one 



instance of his shady dealings, which had been told to her by Gala 
Placidia. Later, when Dr. Urbino confirmed the story after his interview 
with the Governor, she was convinced that her father had been the 
victim of slander. The facts were that two government agents had 
come to the house on the Park of the Evangels with a warrant, 
searched it from top to bottom without finding what they were looking 
for, and at last ordered the wardrobe with the mirrored doors in 
Fermina Daza's old bedroom to be opened. Gala Placidia, who was 
alone in the house and lacked the means to stop anyone from doing 
anything, refused to open it, with the excuse that she did not have the 
keys. Then one of the agents broke the mirror on the door with the 
butt of his revolver and found the space between the glass and the 
wood stuffed with counterfeit hundreddollar bills. This was the last in a 
chain of clues that led to Lorenzo Daza as the final link in a vast 
international operation. It was a masterful fraud, for the bills had the 
watermarks of the original paper: one-dollar bills had been erased by 
a chemical process that seemed to be magic, and reprinted as 
hundred-dollar notes. Lorenzo Daza claimed that the wardrobe had 
been purchased long after his daughter's wedding, and that it must 
have come into the house with the bills already in it, but the police 
proved that it had been there since the days when Fermina Daza had 
been in school. He was the only one who could have hidden the 
counterfeit fortune behind the mirrors. This was all Dr. Urbino told his 
wife when he promised the Governor that he would send his 
father-in-law back to his own country in order to cover up the scandal. 
But the newspaper told much more. 

It said that during one of the many civil wars of the last century, 
Lorenzo Daza had been the intermediary between the government of 



the Liberal President Aquileo Parra and one Joseph T. K. Korzeniowski, 

a native of Poland and a member of the crew of the merchant ship 

Saint Antoine, sailing under the French flag, who had spent several 

months here trying to conclude a complicated arms deal. Korzeniowski, 

who later became famous as J oseph Conrad, made contact somehow 

with Lorenzo Daza, who bought the shipment of arms from him on 

behalf of the government, with his credentials and his receipts in order 

and the purchase price in gold. According to the story in the 

newspaper, Lorenzo Daza claimed that the arms had been stolen in an 

improbable raid, and then he sold them again, for twice their value, to 

the Conservatives who were at war with the government. 

J ustice also said that at the time that General Rafael Reyes founded 
the navy, Lorenzo Daza bought a shipment of surplus boots at a very 
low price from the English army, and with that one deal he doubled his 
fortune in six months. According to the newspaper, when the shipment 
reached this port, Lorenzo Daza refused to accept it because it 
contained only boots for the right foot, but he was the sole bidder 
when Customs auctioned it according to the law, and he bought it for 
the token sum of one hundred pesos. At the same time, under similar 
circumstances, an accomplice purchased the shipment of boots for the 
left foot that had reached Riohacha. Once they were in pairs, Lorenzo 
Daza took advantage of his relationship by marriage to the Urbino de 
la Calle family and sold the boots to the new navy at a profit of two 
thousand percent. 
The story in J ustice concluded by saying that Lorenzo Daza did not 

leave San J uan de la Cienaga at the end of the last century in search 

of better opportunities for his daughter's future, as he liked to say, but 

because he had been found out in his prosperous business of 

adulterating imported tobacco with shredded paper, which he did with 

so much skill that not even the most sophisticated smokers noticed the 



deception. They also uncovered his links to a clandestine international 
enterprise whose most profitable business at the end of the last 
century had been the illegal smuggling of Chinese from Panama. On 
the other hand, his suspect mule trading, which had done so much 
harm to his reputation, seemed to be the only honest business he had 
ever engaged in. 

When Florentino Ariza left his bed, with his back on fire and carrying a 
walking stick for the first time instead of his umbrella, his first 
excursion was to Fermina Daza's house. She was like a stranger, 
ravaged by age, whose resentment had destroyed her desire to live. 
Dr. Urbino Daza, in the two visits he had made to Florentino Ariza 
during his exile, had spoken to him of how disturbed his mother was 
by the two stories in J ustice. The first provoked her to such irrational 
anger at her husband's infidelity and her friend's disloyalty that she 
renounced the custom of visiting the family mausoleum one Sunday 
each month, for it infuriated her that he, inside his coffin, could not 
hear the insults she wanted to shout at him: she had a quarrel with a 
dead man. She let Lucrecia del Real know, through anyone who would 
repeat it to her, that she should take comfort in having had at least 
one real man in the crowd of people who had passed through her bed. 
As for the story about Lorenzo Daza, there was no way to know which 
affected her more, the story itself or her belated discovery of her 
father's true character. But one or the other, or both, had annihilated 
her. Her hair, the color of stainless steel, had ennobled her face, but 
now it looked like ragged yellow strands of corn silk, and her beautiful 
panther eyes did not recover their old sparkle even in the brilliant heat 
of her anger. Her decision not to go on living was evident in every 
gesture. She had long ago given up smoking, whether locked in the 



bathroom or anywhere else, but she took it up again, for the first time 
in public, and with an uncontrolled voracity, at first with cigarettes she 
rolled herself, as she had always liked to do, and then with ordinary 
ones sold in stores because she no longer had time or patience to do it 
herself. Anyone else would have asked himself what the future could 
hold for a lame old man whose back burned with a burro's saddle sores 
and a woman who longed for no other happiness but death. But not 
Florentino Ariza. He found a glimmer of hope in the ruins of disaster, 
for it seemed to him that Fermina Daza's misfortune glorified her, that 
her anger beautified her, and that her rancor with the world had given 
her back the untamed character she had displayed at the age of 
twenty. 

She had new reasons for being grateful to Florentino Ariza, because in 
response to the infamous stories, he had written J ustice an exemplary 
letter concerning the ethical responsibilities of the press and respect 
for other people's honor. They did not publish it, but the author sent a 
copy to the Commercial Daily, the oldest and most serious newspaper 
along the Caribbean coast, which featured the letter on the front page. 
Signed with the pseudonym "Jupiter," it was so reasoned, incisive, and 
well written that it was attributed to some of the most notable writers 
in the province. It was a lone voice in the middle of the ocean, but it 
was heard at great depth and great distance. Fermina Daza knew who 
the author was without having to be told, because she recognized some 
of the ideas and even a sentence taken directly from Florentino Ariza's 
moral reflections. And so she received him with renewed affection in 
the disarray of her solitude. It was at this time that America Vicuna 
found herself alone one Saturday afternoon in the bedroom on the 
Street of Windows, and without looking for them, by sheer accident, 



she found the typed copies of the meditations of Florentino Ariza and 

the handwritten letters of Fermina Daza, in a wardrobe without a key. 

Dr. Urbino Daza was happy about the resumption of the visits that 
gave so much encouragement to his mother. But Ofelia, his sister, 
came from New Orleans on the first fruit boat as soon as she heard 
that Fermina Daza had a strange friendship with a man whose moral 
qualifications were not the best. Her alarm grew to critical proportions 
during the first week, when she became aware of the familiarity and 
self-possession with which Florentino Ariza came into the house, and 
the whispers and fleeting lovers' quarrels that filled their visits until all 
hours of the night. What for Dr. Urbino Daza was a healthy affection 
between two lonely old people was for her a vice-ridden form of secret 
concubinage. Ofelia Urbino had always been like that, resembling Doha 
Blanca, her paternal grandmother, more than if she had been her 
daughter. Like her she was distinguished, like her she was arrogant, 
and like her she lived at the mercy of her prejudices. Even at the age 
of five she had been incapable of imagining an innocent friendship 
between a man and a woman, least of all when they were eighty years 
old. In a bitter argument with her brother, she said that all Florentino 
Ariza needed to do to complete his consolation of their mother was to 
climb into her widow's bed. Dr. Urbino Daza did not have the courage 
to face her, he had never had the courage to face her, but his wife 
intervened with a serene justification of love at any age. Ofelia lost her 
temper. "Love is ridiculous at our age," she shouted, "but at theirs it is 
revolting." 
She insisted with so much vehemence on her determination to drive 

Florentino Ariza out of the house that it reached Fermina Daza's ears. 

She called her to her bedroom, as she always did when she wanted to 

talk without being heard by the servants, and she asked her to repeat 

her accusations. Ofelia did not soften them: she was certain that 

Florentino Ariza, whose reputation as a pervert was known to 

everyone, was carrying on an equivocal relationship that did more 



harm to the family's good name than the villainies of Lorenzo Daza or 
the ingenuous adventures of J uvenal Urbino. Fermina Daza listened to 
her without saying a word, without even blinking, but when she 
finished, Fermina Daza was another person: she had come back to life. 
"The only thing that hurts me is that I do not have the strength to give 
you the beating you deserve for being insolent and evil-minded," she 
said. "But you will leave this house right now, and I swear to you on 
my mother's grave that you will not set foot in it again as long as I 
live." 

There was no power that could dissuade her. Ofelia went to live in her 
brother's house, and from there she sent all kinds of petitions with 
distinguished emissaries. But it was in vain. Neither the mediation of 
her son nor the intervention of her friends could break Fermina Daza's 
resolve. At last, in the colorful language of her better days, she 
allowed herself to confide in her daughter-in-law, with whom she had 
always maintained a certain plebeian camaraderie. "A century ago, life 
screwed that poor man and me because we were too young, and now 
they want to do the same thing because we are too old." She lit a 
cigarette with the end of the one she was smoking, and then she gave 
vent to all the poison that was gnawing at her insides. 
"They can all go to hell," she said. "If we widows have any advantage, 
it is that there is no one left to give us orders." 

There was nothing to be done. When at last she was convinced that she 
had no more options, Ofelia returned to New Orleans. After much 
pleading, her mother would only agree to say goodbye to her, but she 
would not allow her in the house: she had sworn on her mother's 
grave, and for her, during those dark days, that was the only thing left 
that was still pure. 



On one of his early visits, when he was talking about his ships, 
Florentino Ariza had given Fermina Daza a formal invitation to take a 
pleasure cruise along the river. With one more day of traveling by 
train she could visit the national capital, which they, like most 
Caribbeans of their generation, still called by the name it bore until the 
last century: Santa Fe. But she maintained the prejudices of her 
husband, and she did not want to visit a cold, dismal city where the 
women did not leave their houses except to attend five o'clock Mass 
and where, she had been told, they could not enter ice cream parlors 
or public offices, and where the funerals disrupted traffic at all hours of 
the day or night, and where it had been drizzling since the year one: 
worse than in Paris. On the other hand, she felt a very strong 
attraction to the river, she wanted to see the alligators sunning 
themselves on the sandy banks, she wanted to be awakened in the 
middle of the night by the woman's cry of the manatees, but the idea 
of so arduous a journey at her age, and a lone widow besides, seemed 
unrealistic to her. 

Florentino Ariza repeated the invitation later on, when she had decided 
to go on living without her husband, and then it had seemed more 
plausible. But after her quarrel with her daughter, embittered by the 
insults to her father, by her rancor toward her dead husband, by her 
anger at the hypocritical duplicities of Lucrecia del Real, whom she had 
considered her best friend for so many years, she felt herself 
superfluous in her own house. One afternoon, while she was drinking 
her infusion of worldwide leaves, she looked toward the morass of the 
patio where the tree of her misfortune would never bloom again. 
"What I would like is to walk out of this house, and keep going, going, 
going, and never come back," she said. 



"Take a boat," said Florentine) Ariza. Fermina Daza looked at him 

thoughtfully. "Well, I might just do that," she said. 

A moment before she said it, the thought had not even occurred to 

her, but all she had to do was admit the possibility for it to be 

considered a reality. Her son and daughter-inlaw were delighted when 

they heard the news. Florentino Ariza hastened to point out that on his 

vessels Fermina Daza would be a guest of honor, she would have a 

cabin to herself which would be just like home, she would enjoy perfect 

service, and the Captain himself would attend to her safety and 

well-being. He brought route maps to encourage her, picture postcards 

of furious sunsets, poems to the primitive paradise of the Magdalena 

written by illustrious travelers and by those who had become travelers 

by virtue of the poems. She would glance at them when she was in the 

mood. 

"You do not have to cajole me as if I were a baby," she told him. "If I 

go, it will be because I have decided to and not because the landscape 

is interesting." 

When her son suggested that his wife accompany her, she cut him off 

abruptly: "I am too big to have anyone take care of me." She herself 

arranged the details of the trip. She felt immense relief at the thought 

of spending eight days traveling upriver and five on the return, with no 

more than the bare necessities: half a dozen cotton dresses, her 

toiletries, a pair of shoes for embarking and disembarking, her house 

slippers for the journey, and nothing else: her lifetime dream. 

I n J anuary 1824, Commodore J ohann Bernard Elbers, the father of 

river navigation, had registered the first steamboat to sail the 

Magdalena River, a primitive old fortyhorsepower wreck named 

Fidelity. More than a century later, one seventh of July at six o'clock in 



the evening, Dr. Urbino Daza and his wife accompanied Fermina Daza 
as she boarded the boat that was to carry her on her first river 
voyage. It was the first vessel built in the local shipyards and had been 
christened New Fidelity in memory of its glorious ancestor. Fermina 
Daza could never believe that so significant a name for them both was 
indeed a historical coincidence and not another conceit born of 
Florentino Ariza's chronic romanticism. 

In any case, unlike the other riverboats, ancient and modem, New 
Fidelity boasted a suite next to the Captain's quarters that was 
spacious and comfortable: a sitting room with bamboo furniture 
covered in festive colors, a double bedroom decorated in Chinese 
motifs, a bathroom with tub and shower, a large, enclosed observation 
deck with hanging ferns and an unobstructed view toward the front and 
both sides of the boat, and a silent cooling system that kept out 
external noises and maintained a climate of perpetual spring. These 
deluxe accommodations, known as the Presidential Suite because three 
Presidents of the Republic had already made the trip in them, had no 
commercial purpose but were reserved for high-ranking officials and 
very special guests. Florentino Ariza had ordered the suite built for that 
public purpose as soon as he was named President of the R.C.C., but 
his private conviction was that sooner or later it was going to be the 
joyous refuge of his wedding trip with Fermina Daza. 
When in fact the day arrived, she took possession of the Presidential 
Suite as its lady and mistress. The ship's Captain honored Dr. Urbino 
Daza and his wife, and Florentino Ariza, with champagne and smoked 
salmon. His name was Diego Samaritano, he wore a white linen 
uniform that was absolutely correct, from the tips of his boots to his 
cap with the R.C.C. insignia embroidered in gold thread, and he 



possessed, in common with other river captains, the stoutness of a 
ceiba tree, a peremptory voice, and the manners of a Florentine 
cardinal. 

At seven o'clock the first departure warning was sounded, and Fermina 
Daza felt it resonate with a sharp pain in her left ear. The night before, 
her dreams had been furrowed with evil omens that she did not dare 
to decipher. Very early in the morning she had ordered the car to take 
her to the nearby seminary burial ground, which in those days was 
called La Manga Cemetery, and as she stood in front of his crypt, she 
made peace with her dead husband in a monologue in which she freely 
recounted all the just recriminations she had choked back. Then she 
told him the details of the trip and said goodbye for now. She refused 
to tell anyone anything except that she was going away, which is what 
she had done whenever she had gone to Europe, in order to avoid 
exhausting farewells. Despite all her travels, she felt as if this were 
her first trip, and as the day approached her agitation increased. Once 
she was on board she felt abandoned and sad, and she wanted to be 
alone to cry. 

When the final warning sounded, Dr. Urbino Daza and his wife bade 
her an undramatic goodbye, and Florentino Ariza accompanied them to 
the gangplank. Dr. Urbino Daza tried to stand aside so that Florentino 
Ariza could follow his wife, and only then did he realize that Florentino 
Ariza was also taking the trip. Dr. Urbino Daza could not hide his 
confusion. 

"But we did not discuss this," he said. 

Florentino Ariza showed him the key to his cabin with too evident an 
intention: an ordinary cabin on the common deck. But to Dr. Urbino 
Daza this did not seem sufficient proof of innocence. He glanced at his 



wife in consternation, with the eyes of a drowning man looking for 
support, but her eyes were ice. She said in a very low, harsh voice: 
"You too?" Yes: he too, like his sister Ofelia, thought there was an age 
at which love began to 

be indecent. But he was able to recover in time, and he said goodbye 
to Florentino Ariza with a handshake that was more resigned than 
grateful. 

From the railing of the salon, Florentino Ariza watched them 
disembark. Just as he had hoped and wished, Dr. Urbino Daza and his 
wife turned to look at him before climbing into their automobile, and 
he waved his hand in farewell. They both responded in kind. He 
remained at the railing until the automobile disappeared in the dust of 
the freight yard, and then he went to his cabin to change into clothing 
more suitable for his first dinner on board in the Captain's private 
dining room. 

It was a splendid evening, which Captain Diego Samaritano seasoned 
with succulent tales of his forty years on the river, but Fermina Daza 
had to make an enormous effort to appear amused. Despite the fact 
that the final warning had been sounded at eight o'clock, when visitors 
had been obliged to leave and the gangplank had been raised, the 
boat did not set sail until the Captain had finished eating and gone up 
to the bridge to direct the operation. Fermina Daza and Florentino 
Ariza stayed at the railing, surrounded by noisy passengers who made 
bets on how well they could identify the lights in the city, until the boat 
sailed out of the bay, moved along invisible channels and through 
swamps spattered with the undulating lights of the fishermen, and at 
last took a deep breath in the open air of the Great Magdalena River. 
Then the band burst into a popular tune, there was a joyous stampede 



of passengers, and in a mad rush, the dancing began. 
Fermina Daza preferred to take refuge in her cabin. She had not said a 
word for the entire evening, and Florentino Ariza allowed her to 
remain lost in her thoughts. He interrupted her only to say good night 
outside her cabin, but she was not tired, just a little chilly, and she 
suggested that they sit for a while on her private deck to watch the 
river. Florentino Ariza wheeled two wicker easy chairs to the railing, 
turned off the lights, placed a woolen shawl around her shoulders, and 
sat down beside her. With surprising skill, she rolled a cigarette from 
the little box of tobacco that he had brought her. She smoked it slowly, 
with the lit end inside her mouth, not speaking, and then she rolled 
another two and smoked them one right after the other. Sip by sip, 
Florentino Ariza drank two thermoses of mountain coffee. 
The lights of the city had disappeared over the horizon. Seen from the 
darkened deck in the light of a full moon, the smooth, silent river and 
the pastureland on either bank became a phosphorescent plain. From 
time to time one could see a straw hut next to the great bonfires 
signaling that wood for the ships' boilers was on sale. Florentino Ariza 
still had dim memories of the journey of his youth, and in dazzling 
flashes of lightning the sight of the river called them back to life as if 
they had happened yesterday. He recounted some of them to Fermina 
Daza in the belief that this might animate her, but she sat smoking in 
another world. Florentino Ariza renounced his memories and left her 
alone with hers, and in the meantime he rolled cigarettes and passed 
them to her already lit, until the box was empty. The music stopped 
after midnight, the voices of the passengers dispersed and broke into 
sleepy whispers, and two hearts, alone in the shadows on the deck, 
were beating in time to the breathing of the ship. 



After a long while, Florentine) Ariza looked at Fermina Daza by the light 
of the river. She seemed ghostly, her sculptured profile softened by a 
tenuous blue light, and he realized that she was crying in silence. But 
instead of consoling her or waiting until all her tears had been shed, 
which is what she wanted, he allowed panic to overcome him. "Do you 
want to be alone?" he asked. 

"If I did, I would not have told you to come in," she said. 
Then he reached out with two icy fingers in the darkness, felt for the 
other hand in the darkness, and found it waiting for him. Both were 
lucid enough to realize, at the same fleeting instant, that the hands 
made of old bones were not the hands they had imagined before 
touching. In the next moment, however, they were. She began to 
speak of her dead husband in the present tense, as if he were alive, 
and Florentino Ariza knew then that for her, too, the time had come to 
ask herself with dignity, with majesty, with an irrepressible desire to 
live, what she should do with the love that had been left behind 
without a master. 

Fermina Daza stopped smoking in order not to let go of the hand that 
was still in hers. She was lost in her longing to understand. She could 
not conceive of a husband better than hers had been, and yet when 
she recalled their life she found more difficulties than pleasures, too 
many mutual misunderstandings, useless arguments, unresolved 
angers. Suddenly she sighed: "It is incredible how one can be happy 
for so many years in the midst of so many squabbles, so many 
problems, damn it, and not really know if it was love or not." By the 
time she finished unburdening herself, someone had turned off the 
moon. The boat moved ahead at its steady pace, one foot in front of 
the other: an immense, watchful animal. Fermina Daza had returned 



from her longing. 
"Go now," she said. 

Florentino Ariza pressed her hand, bent toward her, and tried to kiss 
her on the cheek. But she refused, in her hoarse, soft voice. 
"Not now," she said to him. "I smell like an old woman." 
She heard him leave in the darkness, she heard his steps on the stairs, 
she heard him cease to exist until the next day. Fermina Daza lit 
another cigarette, and as she smoked she saw Dr. Juvenal Urbino in 
his immaculate linen suit, with his professional rigor, his dazzling 
charm, his official love, and he tipped his white hat in a gesture of 
farewell from another boat out of the past. "We men are the miserable 
slaves of prejudice," he had once said to her. "But when a woman 
decides to sleep with a man, there is no wall she will not scale, no 
fortress she will not destroy, no moral consideration she will not ignore 
at its very root: there is no God worth worrying about." Fermina Daza 
sat motionless until dawn, thinking about Florentino Ariza, not as the 
desolate sentinel in the little Park of the Evangels, whose memory did 
not awaken even a spark of nostalgia in her, but as he was now, old 
and lame, but real: the man who had always been within reach and 
whom she could never acknowledge. As the breathing boat carried her 
toward the splendor of the day's first roses, all that she asked of God 
was that Florentino Ariza would know how to begin again the next day. 
He did. Fermina Daza instructed the steward to let her sleep as long as 
she wanted, and when she awoke there was a vase on the night table 
with a fresh white rose, drops of dew still on it, as well as a letter from 
Florentino Ariza with as many pages as he had written since his 
farewell to her. It was a calm letter that did not attempt to do more 
than express the state of mind that had held him captive since the 



previous night: it was as lyrical as the others, as rhetorical as all of 
them, but it had a foundation in reality. Fermina Daza read it with 
some embarrassment because of the shameless racing of her heart. It 
concluded with the request that she advise the steward when she was 
ready, for the Captain was waiting on the bridge to show them the 
operation of the ship. 

She was ready at eleven o'clock, bathed and smelling of 
flower-scented soap, wearing a very simple widow's dress of gray 
etamine, and completely recovered from the night's turmoil. She 
ordered a sober breakfast from the steward, who was dressed in 
impeccable white, and in the Captain's personal service, but she did 
not send a message for anyone to come for her. She went up alone, 
dazzled by the cloudless sky, and she found Florentino Ariza talking to 
the Captain on the bridge. He looked different to her, not only because 
she saw him now with other eyes, but because in reality he had 
changed. I nstead of the funereal clothing he had worn all his life, he 
was dressed in comfortable white shoes, slacks, and a linen shirt with 
an open collar, short sleeves, and his monogram embroidered on the 
breast pocket. He also had on a white Scottish cap and removable dark 
lenses over his perpetual eyeglasses for myopia. It was evident that 
everything was being used for the first time and had been bought just 
for the trip, with the exception of the well-worn belt of dark brown 
leather, which Fermina Daza noticed at first glance as if it were a fly in 
the soup. Seeing him like this, dressed just for her in so patent a 
manner, she could not hold back the fiery blush that rose to her face. 
She was embarrassed when she greeted him, and he was more 
embarrassed by her embarrassment. The knowledge that they were 
behaving as if they were sweethearts was even more embarrassing, 



and the knowledge that they were both embarrassed embarrassed 
them so much that Captain Samaritano noticed it with a tremor of 
compassion. He extricated them from their difficulty by spending the 
next two hours explaining the controls and the general operation of the 
ship. They were sailing very slowly up a river without banks that 
meandered between arid sandbars stretching to the horizon. But unlike 
the troubled waters at the mouth of the river, these were slow and 
clear and gleamed like metal under the merciless sun. Fermina Daza 
had the impression that it was a delta filled with islands of sand. 
"It is all the river we have left," said the Captain. 
Florentino Ariza, in fact, was surprised by the changes, and would be 
even more surprised the following day, when navigation became more 
difficult and he realized that the Magdalena, father of waters, one of 
the great rivers of the world, was only an illusion of memory. Captain 
Samaritano explained to them how fifty years of uncontrolled 
deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the river- boats 
had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees that had oppressed 
Florentino Ariza on his first voyage. Fermina Daza would not see the 
animals of her dreams: the hunters for skins from the tanneries in New 
Orleans had exterminated the alligators that, with yawning mouths, 
had played dead for hours on end in the gullies along the shore as 
they lay in wait for butterflies, the parrots with their shrieking and the 
monkeys with their lunatic screams had died out as the foliage was 
destroyed, the manatees with their great breasts that had nursed their 
young and wept on the banks in a forlorn woman's voice were an 
extinct species, annihilated by the armored bullets of hunters for sport. 
Captain Samaritano had an almost maternal affection for the 
manatees, because they seemed to him like ladies damned by some 



extravagant love, and he believed the truth of the legend that they 
were the only females in the animal kingdom that had no mates. He 
had always opposed shooting at them from the ship, which was the 
custom despite the laws prohibiting it. Once, a hunter from North 
Carolina, his papers in order, had disobeyed him, and with a 
well-aimed bullet from his Springfield rifle had shattered the head of a 
manatee mother whose baby became frantic with grief as it wailed 
over the fallen body. The Captain had the orphan brought on board so 
that he could care for it, and left the hunter behind on the deserted 
bank, next to the corpse of the murdered mother. He spent six months 
in prison as the result of diplomatic protests and almost lost his 
navigator's license, but he came out prepared to do it again, as often 
as the need arose. Still, that had been a historic episode: the orphaned 
manatee, which grew up and lived for many years in the rare-animal 
zoo in San Nicolas de las Barrancas, was the last of its kind seen along 
the river. 

"Each time I pass that bank," he said, "I pray to God that the gringo 
will board my ship so that I can leave him behind all over again." 
Fermina Daza, who had felt no fondness for the Captain, was so moved 
by the tenderhearted giant that from that morning on he occupied a 
privileged place in her heart. She was not wrong: the trip was just 
beginning, and she would have many occasions to realize that she had 
not been mistaken. 

Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza remained on the bridge until it was 
time for lunch. It was served a short while after they passed the town 
of Calamar on the opposite shore, which just a few years before had 
celebrated a perpetual fiesta and now was a ruined port with deserted 
streets. The only creature they saw from the boat was a woman 



dressed in white, signaling to them with a handkerchief. Fermina Daza 

could not understand why she was not picked up when she seemed so 

distressed, but the Captain explained that she was the ghost of a 

drowned woman whose deceptive signals were intended to lure ships 

off course into the dangerous whirlpools along the other bank. They 

passed so close that Fermina Daza saw her in sharp detail in the 

sunlight, and she had no doubt that she did not exist, but her face 

seemed familiar. 

It was a long, hot day. Fermina Daza returned to her cabin after lunch 
for her inevitable siesta, but she did not sleep well because of a pain 
in her ear, which became worse when the boat exchanged mandatory 
greetings with another R.C.C. vessel as they passed each other a few 
leagues above Barranca Vieja. Florentino Ariza fell into instantaneous 
sleep in the main salon, where most of the passengers without cabins 
were sleeping as if it were midnight, and close to the spot where he 
had seen her disembark, he dreamed of Rosalba. She was traveling 
alone, wearing her Mompox costume from the last century, and it was 
she and not the child who slept in the wicker cage that hung from the 
ceiling. It was a dream at once so enigmatic and so amusing that he 
enjoyed it for the rest of the afternoon as he played dominoes with the 
Captain and two of the passengers who were friends of his. 
It grew cooler as the sun went down, and the ship came back to life. 

The passengers seemed to emerge from a trance; they had just bathed 

and changed into fresh clothing, and they sat in the wicker armchairs 

in the salon, waiting for supper, which was announced at exactly five 

o'clock by a waiter who walked the deck from one end to the other and 

rang a sacristan's bell, to mocking applause. While they were eating, 

the band began to play fandangos, and the dancing continued until 

midnight. 

Fermina Daza did not care to eat because of the pain in her ear, and 



she watched as the first load of wood for the boilers was taken on from 
a bare gully where there was nothing but stacked logs and a very old 
man who supervised the operation. There did not seem to be another 
person for many leagues around. For Fermina Daza it was a long, 
tedious stop that would have been unthinkable on the ocean liners to 
Europe, and the heat was so intense that she could feel it even on her 
cooled observation deck. But when the boat weighed anchor again 
there was a cool breeze scented with the heart of the forest, and the 
music became more lively. In the town of Sitio Nuevo there was only 
one light in only one window in only one house, and the port office did 
not signal either cargo or passengers, so the boat passed by without a 
greeting. 

Fermina Daza had spent the entire afternoon wondering what 
stratagems Florentino Ariza would use to see her without knocking at 
her cabin door, and by eight o'clock she could no longer bear the 
longing to be with him. She went out into the passageway, hoping to 
meet him in what would seem a casual encounter, and she did not 
have to go very far: Florentino Ariza was sitting on a bench in the 
passageway, as silent and forlorn as he had been in the Park of the 
Evangels, and for over two hours he had been asking himself how he 
was going to see her. They both made the same gesture of surprise 
that they both knew was feigned, and together they strolled the 
first-class deck, crowded with young people, most of them boisterous 
students who, with some eagerness, were exhausting themselves in 
the final fling of their vacation. I n the lounge, Florentino Ariza and 
Fermina Daza sat at the bar as if they were students themselves and 
drank bottled soft drinks, and suddenly she saw herself in a frightening 
situation. She said: "How awful!" Florentino Ariza asked her what she 



was thinking that caused her so much distress. 

"The poor old couple," she said. "The ones who were beaten to death 
in the boat." They both decided to turn in when the music stopped, 
after a long, untroubled conversation on the dark observation deck. 
There was no moon, the sky was cloudy, and on the horizon flashes of 
lightning, with no claps of thunder, illuminated them for an instant. 
Florentino Ariza rolled cigarettes for her, but she did not smoke more 
than a few, for she was tormented by pain that would ease for a few 
moments and flare up again when the boat bellowed as it passed 
another ship or a sleeping village, or when it slowed to sound the 
depth of the river. He told her with what longing he had watched her at 
the Poetic Festival, on the balloon flight, on the acrobat's velocipede, 
with what longing he had waited all year for public festivals just so he 
could see her. She had often seen him as well, and she had never 
imagined that he was there only to see her. However, it was less than 
a year since she had read his letters and wondered how it was possible 
that he had never competed in the Poetic Festival: there was no doubt 
he would have won. Florentino Ariza lied to her: he wrote only for her, 
verses for her, and only he read them. Then it was she who reached 
for his hand in the darkness, and she did not find it waiting for her as 
she had waited for his the night before. Instead, she took him by 
surprise, and Florentino Ariza's heart froze. 
"How strange women are," he said. 

She burst into laughter, a deep laugh like a young dove's, and she 
thought again about the old couple in the boat. It was incised: the 
image would always pursue her. But that night she could bear it 
because she felt untroubled and calm, as she had few times in her life: 
free of all blame. She would have remained there until dawn, silent, 



with his hand perspiring ice into hers, but she could not endure the 
torment in her ear. So that when the music was over, and then the 
bustle of the ordinary passengers hanging their hammocks in the salon 
had ended, she realized that her pain was stronger than her desire to 
be with him. She knew that telling him about it would alleviate her 
suffering, but she did not because she did not want to worry him. For 
now it seemed to her that she knew him as well as if she had lived 
with him all her life, and she thought him capable of ordering the boat 
back to port if that would relieve her pain. 

Florentino Ariza had foreseen how things would be that night, and he 
withdrew. At the door of her cabin he tried to kiss her good night, but 
she offered him her left cheek. He insisted, with labored breath, and 
she offered him her other cheek, with a coquettishness that he had not 
known when she was a schoolgirl. Then he insisted again, and she 
offered him her lips, she offered her lips with a profound trembling 
that she tried to suppress with the laugh she had forgotten after her 
wedding night. 

"My God," she said, "ships make me so crazy." 

Florentino Ariza shuddered: as she herself had said, she had the sour 
smell of old age. Still, as he walked to his cabin, making his way 
through the labyrinth of sleeping hammocks, he consoled himself with 
the thought that he must give off the same odor, except his was four 
years older, and she must have detected it on him, with the same 
emotion. It was the smell of human fermentation, which he had 
perceived in his oldest lovers and they had detected in him. The 
Widow Nazaret, who kept nothing to herself, had told him in a cruder 
way: "Now we stink like a henhouse." They tolerated each other 
because they were an even match: my odor against yours. On the 



other hand, he had often taken care of America Vicuna, whose diaper 
smell awakened maternal instincts in him, but he was disturbed at the 
idea that she had disliked his odor: the smell of a dirty old man. But 
all that belonged to the past. The important thing was that not since 
the afternoon when Aunt Escolastica left her missal on the counter in 
the telegraph office had Florentino Ariza felt the happiness he felt that 
night: so intense it frightened him. 

At five o'clock he was beginning to doze off, when the ship's purser 
woke him in the port of Zambrano to hand him an urgent telegram. It 
was signed by Leona Cassiani and dated the previous day, and all its 
horror was contained in a single line: America Vicuna dead yesterday 
reasons unknown. At eleven o'clock in the morning he learned the 
details from Leona Cassiani in a telegraphic conference during which 
he himself operated the transmitting equipment for the first time since 
his years as a telegraph operator. America Vicuna, in the grip of 
mortal depression because she had failed her final examinations, had 
drunk a flask of laudanum stolen from the school infirmary. Florentino 
Ariza knew in the depths of his soul that the story was incomplete. But 
no: America Vicuna had left no explanatory note that would have 
allowed anyone to be blamed for her decision. The family, informed by 
Leona Cassiani, was arriving now from Puerto Padre, and the funeral 
would take place that afternoon at five o'clock. Florentino Ariza took a 
breath. The only thing he could do to stay alive was not to allow 
himself the anguish of that memory. He erased it from his mind, 
although from time to time in the years that were left to him he would 
feel it revive, with no warning and for no reason, like the sudden pang 
of an old scar. 
The days that followed were hot and interminable. The river became 



muddy and narrow, and instead of the tangle of colossal trees that had 
astonished Florentino Ariza on his first voyage, there were calcinated 
flatlands stripped of entire forests that had been devoured by the 
boilers of the riverboats, and the debris of godforsaken villages whose 
streets remained flooded even in the crudest droughts. At night they 
were awakened not by the siren songs of manatees on the sandy 
banks but by the nauseating stench of corpses floating down to the 
sea. For there were no more wars or epidemics, but the swollen bodies 
still floated by. The Captain, for once, was solemn: "We have orders to 
tell the passengers that they are accidental drowning victims. " I nstead 
of the screeching of the parrots and the riotous noise of invisible 
monkeys, which at one time had intensified the stifling midday heat, 
all that was left was the vast silence of the ravaged land. 
There were so few places for taking on wood, and they were so far 
apart from each other, that by the fourth day of the trip the New 
Fidelity had run out of fuel. She was stranded for almost a week while 
her crew searched bogs of ashes for the last scattered trees. There was 
no one else: the woodcutters had abandoned their trails, fleeing the 
ferocity of the lords of the earth, fleeing the invisible cholera, fleeing 
the larval wars that governments were bent on hiding with distracted 
decrees. In the meantime, the passengers in their boredom held 
swimming contests, organized hunting expeditions, and returned with 
live iguanas that they split open from top to bottom and sewed up 
again with baling needles after removing the clusters of soft, 
translucent eggs that they strung over the railings to dry. The 
poverty-stricken prostitutes from nearby villages followed in the path 
of the expeditions, improvised tents in the gullies along the shore, 
brought music and liquor with them, and caroused across the river 



from the stranded vessel. 

Long before he became President of the R.C.C., Florentino Ariza had 
received alarming reports on the state of the river, but he barely read 
them. He would calm his associates: "Don't worry, by the time the 
wood is gone there will be boats fueled by oil." With his mind clouded 
by his passion for Fermina Daza, he never took the trouble to think 
about it, and by the time he realized the truth, there was nothing 
anyone could do except bring in a new river. Even in the days when 
the waters were at their best, the boats had to anchor at night, and 
then even the simple fact of being alive became unendurable. Most of 
the passengers, above all the Europeans, abandoned the pestilential 
stench of their cabins and spent the night walking the decks, brushing 
away all sorts of predatory creatures with the same towel they used to 
dry their incessant perspiration, and at dawn they were exhausted and 
swollen with bites. An English traveler at the beginning of the 
nineteenth century, referring to the journey by canoe and mule that 
could last as long as fifty days, had written: "This is one of the most 
miserable and uncomfortable pilgrimages that a human being can 
make." This had no longer been true during the first eighty years of 
steam navigation, and then it became true again forever when the 
alligators ate the last butterfly and the maternal manatees were gone, 
the parrots, the monkeys, the villages were gone: everything was 
gone. 

"There's no problem," the Captain laughed. "In a few years, we'll ride 
the dry riverbed in luxury automobiles." 

For the first three days Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza were 
protected by the soft springtime of the enclosed observation deck, but 
when the wood was rationed and the cooling system began to fail, the 



Presidential Suite became a steam bath. She survived the nights 
because of the river breeze that came in through the open windows, 
and she frightened off the mosquitoes with a towel because the 
insecticide bomb was useless when the boat was anchored. Her 
earache had become unbearable, and one morning when she awoke it 
stopped suddenly and completely, like the sound of a smashed cicada. 
But she did not realize that she had lost the hearing in her left ear until 
that night, when Florentino Ariza spoke to her on that side and she had 
to turn her head to hear what he was saying. She did not tell anyone, 
for she was resigned to the fact that it was one of the many 
irremediable defects of old age. 

I n spite of everything, the delay had been a providential accident for 
them. Florentino Ariza had once read: "Love becomes greater and 
nobler in calamity." The humidity in the Presidential Suite submerged 
them in an unreal lethargy in which it was easier to love without 
questions. They spent unimaginable hours holding hands in the 
armchairs by the railing, they exchanged unhurried kisses, they 
enjoyed the rapture of caresses without the pitfalls of impatience. On 
the third stupefying night she waited for him with a bottle of anisette, 
which she used to drink in secret with Cousin Hildebranda's band and 
later, after she was married and had children, behind closed doors with 
the friends from her borrowed world. She needed to be somewhat 
intoxicated in order not to think about her fate with too much lucidity, 
but Florentino Ariza thought it was to give herself courage for the final 
step. Encouraged by that illusion, he dared to explore her withered 
neck with his fingertips, her bosom armored in metal stays, her hips 
with their decaying bones, her thighs with their aging veins. She 
accepted with pleasure, her eyes closed, but she did not tremble, and 



she smoked and drank at regular intervals. At last, when his caresses 
slid over her belly, she had enough anisette in her heart. 
"If we're going to do it, let's do it," she said, "but let's do it like 
grownups." 

She took him to the bedroom and, with the lights on, began to undress 
without false modesty. Florentino Ariza was on the bed, lying on his 
back and trying to regain control, once again not knowing what to do 
with the skin of the tiger he had slain. She said: "Don't look." He asked 
why without taking his eyes off the ceiling. 
"Because you won't like it," she said. 

Then he looked at her and saw her naked to her waist, just as he had 
imagined her. Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her 
ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog's. She 
covered her chest with the blouse she had just taken off, and she 
turned out the light. Then he sat up and began to undress in the 
darkness, throwing everything at her that he took off, while she tossed 
it back, dying of laughter. 

They lay on their backs for a long time, he more and more perturbed 
as his intoxication left him, and she peaceful, almost without will, but 
praying to God that she would not laugh like a fool, as she always did 
when she overindulged in anisette. They talked to pass the time. They 
spoke of themselves, of their divergent lives, of the incredible 
coincidence of their lying naked in a dark cabin on a stranded boat 
when reason told them they had time only for death. She had never 
heard of his having a woman, not even one, in that city where 
everything was known even before it happened. She spoke in a casual 
manner, and he replied without hesitation in a steady voice: 
"I've remained a virgin for you." 



She would not have believed it in any event, even if it had been true, 
because his love letters were composed of similar phrases whose 
meaning mattered less than their brilliance. But she liked the spirited 
way in which he said it. Florentino Ariza, for his part, suddenly asked 
himself what he would never have dared to ask himself before: what 
kind of secret life had she led outside of her marriage? Nothing would 
have surprised him, because he knew that women are just like men in 
their secret adventures: the same stratagems, the same sudden 
inspirations, the same betrayals without remorse. But he was wise not 
to ask the question. Once, when her relations with the Church were 
already strained, her confessor had asked her out of the blue if she 
had ever been unfaithful to her husband, and she had stood up without 
responding, without concluding, without saying goodbye, and had 
never gone to confession again, with that confessor or with any other. 
But Florentino Ariza's prudence had an unexpected reward: she 
stretched out her hand in the darkness, caressed his belly, his flanks, 
his almost hairless pubis. She said: "You have skin like a baby's." Then 
she took the final step: she searched for him where he was not, 
she searched again without hope, and she found him, unarmed. "It's 
dead," he said. 

It had happened to him sometimes, and he had learned to live with 
the phantom: each time he had to learn again, as if it were the first 
time. He took her hand and laid it on his chest: Fermina Daza felt the 
old, untiring heart almost bursting through his skin, beating with the 
strength, the rapidity, the irregularity of an adolescent's. He said: "Too 
much love is as bad for this as no love at all." But he said it without 
conviction: he was ashamed, furious with himself, longing for some 
reason to blame her for his failure. She knew it, and began to provoke 



his defenseless body with mock caresses, like a kitten delighting in 
cruelty, until he could no longer endure the martyrdom and he 
returned to his cabin. She thought about him until dawn, convinced at 
last of her love, and as the anisette left her in slow waves, she was 
invaded by the anguished fear that he was angry and would never 
return. 

But he returned the same day, refreshed and renewed, at the unusual 
hour of eleven o'clock, and he undressed in front of her with a certain 
ostentation. She was pleased to see him in the light just as she had 
imagined him in the darkness: an ageless man, with dark skin that was 
as shiny and tight as an opened umbrella, with no hair except for a 
few limp strands under his arms and at his groin. His guard was up, 
and she realized that he did not expose his weapon by accident, but 
displayed it as if it were a war trophy in order to give himself courage. 
He did not even give her time to take off the nightgown that she had 
put on when the dawn breeze began to blow, and his beginner's haste 
made her shiver with compassion. But that did not disturb her, because 
in such cases it was not easy to distinguish between compassion and 
love. When it was over, however, she felt empty. 
It was the first time she had made love in over twenty years, and she 
had been held back by her curiosity concerning how it would feel at 
her age after so long a respite. But he had not given her time to find 
out if her body loved him too. It had been hurried and sad, and she 
thought: Now we've screwed up everything. But she was wrong: 
despite the disappointment that each of them felt, despite his regret 
for his clumsiness and her remorse for the madness of the anisette, 
they were not apart for a moment in the days that followed. Captain 
Samaritano, who uncovered by instinct any secret that anyone wanted 



to keep on his ship, sent them a white rose every morning, had them 
serenaded with old waltzes from their day, had meals prepared for 
them with aphrodisiac ingredients as a joke. They did not try to make 
love again until much later, when the inspiration came to them without 
their looking for it. They were satisfied with the simple joy of being 
together. 

They would not have thought of leaving the cabin if the Captain had 
not written them a note informing them that after lunch they would 
reach golden La Dorada, the last port on the eleven-day journey. From 
the cabin Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza saw the promontory of 
houses lit by a pale sun, and they thought they understood the reason 
for its name, but it seemed less evident to them when they felt the 
heat that steamed like a caldron and saw the tar bubbling in the 
streets. Moreover, the boat did not dock there but on the opposite 
bank, where the terminal for the Santa Fe Railroad was located. 
They left their refuge as soon as the passengers disembarked. Fermina 
Daza breathed the good air of impunity in the empty salon, and from 
the gunwale they both watched a noisy crowd of people gathering their 
luggage in the cars of a train that looked like a toy. 
One would have thought they had come from Europe, above all the 
women, in their Nordic coats and hats from the last century that made 
no sense in the sweltering, dusty heat. Some wore beautiful potato 
blossoms in their hair, but they had begun to wither in the heat. They 
had just come from the Andean plateau after a train trip through a 
dreamlike savannah, and they had not had time to change their 
clothes for the Caribbean. 

I n the middle of the bustling market, a very old man with an 
inconsolable expression on his face was pulling chicks out of the 



pockets of his beggar's coat. He had appeared without warning, 
making his way through the crowd in a tattered overcoat that had 
belonged to someone much taller and heavier than he. He took off his 
hat, placed it brim up on the dock in case anyone wanted to throw him 
a coin, and began to empty his pockets of handfuls of pale baby chicks 
that seemed to proliferate in his fingers. In only a moment the dock 
appeared to be carpeted with cheeping chicks running everywhere 
among hurried travelers who trampled them without realizing it. 
Fascinated by the marvelous spectacle that seemed to be performed in 
her honor, for she was the only person watching it, Fermina Daza did 
not notice when the passengers for the return trip began to come on 
board. The party was over: among them she saw many faces she 
knew, some of them friends who until a short while ago had attended 
her in her grief, and she rushed to take refuge in her cabin. Florentino 
Ariza found her there, distraught: she would rather die than be seen on 
a pleasure trip, by people she knew, so soon after the death of her 
husband. Her preoccupation affected Florentino Ariza so much that he 
promised to think of some way to protect her other than keeping her in 
the cabin. 

The idea came to him all at once as they were having supper in the 
private dining room. The Captain was troubled by a problem he had 
wanted to discuss for a long time with Florentino Ariza, who always 
evaded him with his usual answer: "Leona Cassiani can handle those 
problems better than I can." This time, however, he listened to him. 
The fact was that the boats carried cargo upriver, but came back 
empty, while the opposite occurred with passengers. "And the 
advantage of cargo is that it pays more and eats nothing," he said. 
Fermina Daza, bored with the men's enervated discussion concerning 



the possibility of establishing differential fares, ate without will. But 

Florentino Ariza pursued the discussion to its end, and only then did he 

ask the question that the Captain thought was the prelude to a 

solution: 

"And speaking hypothetically," he said, "would it be possible to make a 

trip without stopping, without cargo or passengers, without conning into 

any port, without anything?" 

The Captain said that it was possible, but only hypothetically. The 

R.C.C. had business commitments that Florentino Ariza was more 

familiar with than he was, it had contracts for cargo, passengers, mail, 

and a great deal more, and most of them were unbreakable. The only 

thing that would allow them to bypass all that was a case of cholera on 

board. The ship would be quarantined, it would hoist the yellow flag 

and sail in a state of emergency. Captain Samaritano had needed to 

do just that on several occasions because of the many cases of cholera 

along the river, although later the health authorities had obliged the 

doctors to sign death certificates that called the cases common 

dysentery. Besides, many times in the history of the river the yellow 

plague flag had been flown in order to evade taxes, or to avoid picking 

up an undesirable passenger, or to elude inopportune inspections. 

Florentino Ariza reached for Fermina Daza's hand under the table. 

"Well, then," he said, "let's do that." 

The Captain was taken by surprise, but then, with the instinct of an old 

fox, he saw everything clearly. 

"I command on this ship, but you command us," he said. "So if you are 
serious, give me the order in writing and we will leave right now." 
Florentino Ariza was serious, of course, and he signed the order. After 

all, everyone knew that the time of cholera had not ended despite all 



the joyful statistics from the health officials. As for the ship, there was 
no problem. The little cargo they had taken on was transferred, they 
told the passengers there had been a mechanical failure, and early 
that morning they sent them on their way on a ship that belonged to 
another company. If such things were done for so many immoral, even 
contemptible reasons, Florentino Ariza could not see why it would not 
be legitimate to do them for love. All that the Captain asked was that 
they stop in Puerto Nare to pick up someone who would accompany 
him on the voyage: he, too, had his secret heart. 
So the New Fidelity weighed anchor at dawn the next day, without 
cargo or passengers, and with the yellow cholera flag waving jubilantly 
from the mainmast. At dusk in Puerto Nare they picked up a woman 
who was even taller and stouter than the Captain, an uncommon 
beauty who needed only a beard to be hired by a circus. Her name 
was Zenaida Neves, but the Captain called her "my wild woman": an 
old friend whom he would pick up in one port and leave in another, 
and who came on board followed by the winds of joy. I n that sad place 
of death, where Florentino Ariza relived his memories of Rosalba when 
he saw the train from Envigado struggling to climb the old mule trail, 
there was an Amazonian downpour that would continue with very few 
pauses for the rest of the trip. But no one cared: the floating fiesta had 
its own roof. That night, as a personal contribution to the revelry, 
Fermina Daza went down to the galley amid the ovations of the crew 
and prepared a dish for everyone that she created and that Florentino 
Ariza christened Eggplant al Amor. 

During the day they played cards, ate until they were bursting, took 
gritty siestas that left them exhausted, and as soon as the sun was 
down the orchestra began to play, and they had anisette with salmon 



until they could eat and drink no more. It was a rapid journey: the 
boat was light and the currents favorable and even improved by the 
floods that rushed down from the headwaters, where it rained as much 
that week as it had during the entire voyage. Some villages fired 
charitable cannons for them to frighten away the cholera, and they 
expressed their gratitude with a mournful bellow. The ships they 
passed on the way, regardless of the company they belonged to, 
signaled their condolences. In the town of Magangue, where Mercedes 
was born, they took on enough wood for the rest of the trip. 
Fermina Daza was horrified when she heard the boat's horn with her 
good ear, but by the second day of anisette she could hear better with 
both of them. She discovered that roses were more fragrant than 
before, that the birds sang at dawn much better than before, and that 
God had created a manatee and placed it on the bank at Tamalameque 
just so it could awaken her. The Captain heard it, had the boat change 
course, and at last they saw the enormous matron nursing the baby 
that she held in her arms. Neither Florentino nor Fermina was aware of 
how well they understood each other: she helped him to take his 
enemas, she got up before he did to brush the false teeth he kept in a 
glass while he slept, and she solved the problem of her misplaced 
spectacles, for she could use his for reading and mending. When she 
awoke one morning, she saw him sewing a button on his shirt in 
the darkness, and she hurried to do it for him before he could say the 
ritual phrase about needing two wives. On the other hand, the only 
thing she needed from him was that he cup a pain in her back. 
Florentino Ariza, for his part, began to revive old memories with a 
violin borrowed from the orchestra, and in half a day he could play the 
waltz of "The Crowned Goddess" for her, and he played it for hours 



until they forced him to stop. One night, for the first time in her life, 
Fermina Daza suddenly awoke choking on tears of sorrow, not of rage, 
at the memory of the old couple in the boat beaten to death by the 
boatman. On the other hand, the incessant rain did not affect her, and 
she thought too late that perhaps Paris was not as gloomy as it had 
seemed, that Santa Fe did not have so many funerals passing along 
the streets. The dream of other voyages with Florentino Ariza 
appeared on the horizon: mad voyages, free of trunks, free of social 
commitments: voyages of love. 

The night before their arrival they had a grand party with paper 
garlands and colored lights. The weather cleared at nightfall. Holding 
each other very close, the Captain and Zenaida danced the first 
boleros that were just beginning to break hearts in those days. 
Florentino Ariza dared to suggest to Fermina Daza that they dance 
their private waltz, but she refused. Nevertheless she kept time with 
her head and her heels all night, and there was even a moment when 
she danced sitting down without realizing it, while the Captain merged 
with his young wild woman in the shadows of the bolero. She drank so 
much anisette that she had to be helped up the stairs, and she suffered 
an attack of laughing until she cried, which alarmed everyone. 
However, when at last she recovered her selfpossession in the 
perfumed oasis of her cabin, they made the tranquil, wholesome love 
of experienced grandparents, which she would keep as her best 
memory of that lunatic voyage. Contrary to what the Captain and 
Zenaida supposed, they no longer felt like newlyweds, and even less 
like belated lovers. It was as if they had leapt over the arduous 
calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They 
were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, 



beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and 
the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together 
long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and 
anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death. 
They awoke at six o'clock. She had a headache scented with anisette, 
and her heart was stunned by the impression that Dr. Juvenal Urbino 
had come back, plumper and younger than when he had fallen from 
the tree, and that he was sitting in his rocking chair, waiting for her at 
the door of their house. She was, however, lucid enough to realize that 
this was the result not of the anisette but of her imminent return. 
"It is going to be like dying," she said. 

Florentino Ariza was startled, because her words read a thought that 
had given him no peace since the beginning of the voyage home. 
Neither one could imagine being in any other home but the cabin, or 
eating in any other way but on the ship, or living any other life, for 
that would be alien to them forever. It was, indeed, like dying. He 
could not go back to sleep. He lay on his back in bed, his hands 
crossed behind his head. At a certain moment, the pangs of grief for 
America Vicuna made him twist with pain, and he could not hold off 
the truth any longer: he locked himself in the bathroom and cried, 
slowly, until his last tear was shed. Only then did he have the courage 
to admit to himself how much he had loved her. 

When they went up, already dressed for going ashore, the ship had left 
behind the narrow channels and marshes of the old Spanish passage 
and was navigating around the wrecks of boats and the platforms of oil 
wells in the bay. A radiant Thursday was breaking over the golden 
domes of the city of the Viceroys, but Fermina Daza, standing at the 
railing, could not bear the pestilential stink of its glories, the arrogance 



of its bulwarks profaned by iguanas: the horror of real life. They did 

not say anything, but neither one felt capable of capitulating so easily. 

They found the Captain in the dining room, in a disheveled condition 
that did not accord with his habitual neatness: he was unshaven, his 
eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, his clothing was still sweaty 
from the previous night, his speech was interrupted by belches of 
anisette. Zenaida was asleep. They were beginning to eat their 
breakfast in silence, when a motor launch from the Health Department 
ordered them to stop the ship. 
The Captain, standing on the bridge, shouted his answers to the 

questions put to him by the armed patrol. They wanted to know what 

kind of pestilence they carried on board, how many passengers there 

were, how many of them were sick, what possibility there was for new 

infections. The Captain replied that they had only three passengers on 

board and all of them had cholera, but they were being kept in strict 

seclusion. Those who were to come on board in La Dorada, and the 

twenty-seven men of the crew, had not had any contact with them. But 

the commander of the patrol was not satisfied, and he ordered them to 

leave the bay and wait in Las Mercedes Marsh until two o'clock in the 

afternoon, while the forms were prepared for placing the ship in 

quarantine. The Captain let loose with a wagon driver's fart, and with a 

wave of his hand he ordered the pilot to turn around and go back to 

the marshes. 

Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza had heard everything from their 

table, but that did not seem to matter to the Captain. He continued to 

eat in silence, and his bad humor was evident in the manner in which 

he breached the rules of etiquette that sustained the legendary 

reputation of the riverboat captains. He broke apart his four fried eggs 

with the tip of his knife, and he ate them with slices of green plantain, 



which he placed whole in his mouth and chewed with savage delight. 
Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza looked at him without speaking, as 
if waiting on a school bench to hear their final grades. They had not 
exchanged a word during his conversation with the health patrol, nor 
did they have the slightest idea of what would become of their lives, 
but they both knew that the Captain was thinking for them: they could 
see it in the throbbing of his temples. 

While he finished off his portion of eggs, the tray of fried plantains, 
and the pot of cafe con leche, the ship left the bay with its boilers 
quiet, made its way along the channels through blankets of taruya, the 
river lotus with purple blossoms and large heart-shaped leaves, and 
returned to the marshes. The water was iridescent with the universe of 
fishes floating on their sides, killed by the dynamite of stealthy 
fishermen, and all the birds of the earth and the water circled above 
them with metallic cries. The wind from the Caribbean blew in the 
windows along with the racket made by the birds, and Fermina Daza 
felt in her blood the wild beating of her free will. To her right, the 
muddy, frugal estuary of the Great Magdalena River spread out to the 
other side of the world. 

When there was nothing left to eat on the plates, the Captain wiped his 
lips with a corner of the tablecloth and broke into indecent slang that 
ended once and for all the reputation for fine speech enjoyed by the 
riverboat captains. For he was not speaking to them or to anyone else, 
but was trying instead to come to terms with his own rage. His 
conclusion, after a string of barbaric curses, was that he could find no 
way out of the mess he had gotten into with the cholera flag. 
Florentino Ariza listened to him without blinking. Then he looked 
through the windows at the complete circle of the quadrant on the 



mariner's compass, the clear horizon, the December sky without a 

single cloud, the waters that could be navigated forever, and he said: 

"Let us keep going, going, going, back to La Dorada." 

Fermina Daza shuddered because she recognized his former voice, 

illuminated by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and she looked at the 

Captain: he was their destiny. But the Captain did not see her because 

he was stupefied by Florentino Ariza's tremendous powers of 

inspiration. 

"Do you mean what you say?" he asked. 

"From the moment I was born," said Florentino Ariza, "I have never 

said anything I did not mean." 

The Captain looked at Fermina Daza and saw on her eyelashes the first 

glimmer of wintry frost. Then he looked at Florentino Ariza, his 

invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the 

belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits. 

"And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and 

going?" he asked. 

Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven 
months, and eleven days and nights. 
"Forever," he said. 



A Note About The Author 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born in Aracataca, Colombia, in 1928. He 

attended the University of Bogota and later 

worked as a reporter for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador and 

as a foreign correspondent in Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Caracas, and 

New York. 

The author of several novels and collections of stories-including No 

One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, The Autumn of the 

Patriarch, Innocent Erendira and Other Stories, In Evil Hour, LeafStorm 

and Other Stories, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and the 

internationally best-selling One Hundred Years of Solitude--he was 

awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. He lives in Mexico City. 



A Note On The Type 

This book was set on the Linotype in Janson, a recutting made directly 

from type cast from matrices long thought to have been made by the 

Dutchman Anton Janson, who was a practicing type founder in Leipzig 

during the years 1668-87. 

However, it has been conclusively demonstrated that these types are 

actually the work of Nicholas Kis (1650-1702), a Hungarian, who most 

probably learned his trade from the master Dutch type founder Dirk 

Voskens. 

The type is an excellent example of the influential and sturdy Dutch 

types that prevailed in England up to the time William Caslon 

developed his own incomparable designs from them. 

Composed by Maryland Linotype Composition Company, Baltimore, 

Maryland Typography and binding design by Dorothy Schmiderer Baker 



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